Late defensive stand key as Cary-Grove wins Class 6A championship
DeKALB -- Noah Riley entered for only one defensive snap.
Riley, the senior Cary-Grove tight end, certainly picked the right moment.
With 28 seconds left, East St. Louis sophomore quarterback Robert Battle's pass attempt popped into the air and into the waiting hands of Riley. Cary-Grove's offense sealed it with kneel downs to prevail, 37-36, in the Class 6A state title game Saturday at Northern Illinois University's Huskie Stadium.
Riley's instructions were a simple, yet highly daunting task: "Cover Luther Burden and follow him wherever he goes."
Burden III, the East St. Louis senior superstar and the state's top collegiate prospect, entered Saturday with 32 touchdowns and 2,080 total yards between receiving, rushing and punt returns. He scored 2 receiving touchdowns against C-G and had a kick return for another.
Burden III ultimately finished with 6 receptions for 106 yards and 296 kick return yards.
"He was right there. I tried staying as close as possible as I could," Riley said. "Ball just went up and I just went for it."
Battle, trying to make a play, "knew he couldn't take a sack."
"So, I was trying to make a bigger play," said Battle, who finished 15 for 20 for 196 yards and 2 touchdowns. "I'm going to take my learning lesson from this and move forward."
TV replays showed Battle potentially might've been down prior to throwing the pick.
"I don't really know [If I was]," Battle said.
C-G (14-0) was playing in its sixth state title game, having gone 2-3 in previous appearances. C-G won it all in 2009 and 2018.
"I think the game spoke for itself [as] for an opening statement," C-G coach Brad Seaburg said. "Wow."
Trailing 37-36, East St. Louis (11-3) still had a chance after a Trojans fumble was recovered with 3:15 left.
The Flyers overcame two costly penalties to reach midfield.
Yet, it was the Trojans who made just one more crucial play.
"We told our kids on Monday: We thought we were the best team in the state of Illinois," Seaburg said. "I think we did everything today to prove that's certainly a possibility."
C-G took a 30-20 lead into halftime, but with 4:48 remaining in the third quarter, Burden climbed the ladder for a 12-yard touchdown and Battle's 2-point conversion to pulled the Flyers within 30-28.
The ensuing possession, the Trojans opted to attempt a fourth-and-17 from the Flyers' 32 to open the fourth quarter. Jameson Sheehan (1-for-2 passing, 23 yards; 99 rushing yards, 3 TDs) converted his first pass of the game for a crucial 23 yards to Riley.
Nick Hissong, who revealed postgame he likely tore his ACL on a fourth-quarter run, then ran in for the 9-yard score with 11:49 left to make it 37-28 Trojans.
Hissong finished with 224 rushing yards on 32 carries and 2 touchdowns.
Burden, again, had an answer.
The Missouri recruit motored the ensuing kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown; the 2-point try was good to pull East St. Louis within one with 11:37 left.
"[Burden III] is a special talent," Flyers coach Darren Sunkett said. "I've said it before: He's definitely the best I've seen. What we want to do is just get the ball in his hands and let him make plays."
C-G, which has won 18 consecutive games, showed its collective heart to preserve the program's third title.
"I think we just had so much confidence going into this game that we were going to be the one coming out on top," Sheehan said. "Our team, we all work together. I'm kind of at a loss for words right now. It was just such a great atmosphere. Just playing the game of my life; it's awesome."
C-G narrowly edged the Flyers in total offense 409-406 and led 22-21 in first downs.
The Flyers piled up big plays from the opening kickoff, but still trailed 30-20 at the half.
It didn't take Burden long to find the end zone Saturday.
The senior took a pass from Battle 53 yards for a score within the first 30 seconds for an early 8-0 lead.
The Trojans answered on Sheehan's 31-yard run to eventually even it. Flyers freshman running back TaRyan Martin (11 rushes, 101 yards) added a 5-yard touchdown to retake the lead, but was stopped on the two-point try.
Hissong converted a key fourth-and-1 on the ensuing possession and then scored from 6 yards out to make it 15-14 C-G with 3:34 remaining in the first quarter.
Battle later scrambled for an 11-yard score to put the Flyers ahead again 20-15. After C-G senior linebacker Wade Abrams forced a fumble and the Trojans recovered, Sheehan added a 3-yard score for the 23-20 C-G advantage with 3:58 left in the half.
C-G kicker Toby Splitt then recovered his own onside kick, which ultimately led to Sheehan's 5-yard score -- his third of the half -- for the Trojans' 30-20 halftime lead.
"I thought both teams played an outstanding game," Sunkett said. "It was an offensive shootout; came down to a few stops. They [C-G] made their stops when the had to and we had our opportunities. We didn't capitalize."