By Tony Hooker
When playing a team of Arcola’s caliber, you have to play a nearly flawless game to come out on top.
Unfortunately for VGH, too many miscues, including five INT’s and an illegal block which called back a Carson Howard pick six, proved to be the difference as the Blue Devils fell to the Purple Riders, 26-21.
Arcola’s ball hawking safety, Beau Edwards, ended Villa Grove Heritage’s first drive by picking off Liam Barr at the Blue Devils 37-yard line and it only took two plays for the Riders to reach the end zone and with 9:07 left in the first quarter, the score stood at 7-0. Villa Grove’s next drive was thwarted when Edwards, whose contact with the receiver led to vocal displeasure from the Blue Devils sideline, picked off his second pass of the quarter and Arcola took over at their own 29. Carson Howard, who would finish the contest with three and a half tackles for loss, five solos and four assists, was able to snake into the Purple Rider backfield on first down, resulting in a four-yard loss, but the Riders quickly regained momentum and eventually completed a 12 play, 75-yard drive with a 19-yard touchdown pass and it looked like things might get out of hand in favor of the Riders.
VGH QB Liam Barr (10-21 for 113 yards, one TD, four INT’s) had other ideas, however, as he put together an epic drive of his own, mixing in a 12-yard keeper and a one yard fourth down sneak with six straight completions to put VGH on the board with a seven-yard TD toss to Blake Smith, and with 11:54 left in the half, the scored stood at Arcola 14-VGH 7.
Arcola’s seemingly unstoppable offense would respond, however and they put together a 13-play drive that ended with them taking a 20-7 lead with 6:45 left in the half. Villa Grove’s next two drives would end in the same fashion, with Edwards intercepting passes inside the Arcola 10-yard line, an indication of how agonizingly close to victory the Blue Devils truly were on this day. The final drive, which ended with an Edwards pick at the five, came after an apparent 40-yard pick six by Howard was nullified by a questionable block in the back call that had the VGH sideline steaming once again. Barr, who threw the last pass of the half for VGH, ended up getting hit after he threw the ball and would not return for the second half.
The Riders received the second half kickoff and once again marched steadily down the field, punching in the TD at the 9:30 mark to make their lead 26-7.
This time, the Blue Devils dug deep, and mixing Luke Zimmermann (13 carries for 47 yards) with Blake Smith passes (9-16 for 137 yds, one TD passing, one TD rushing, one INT, one TD receiving) to Carson Howard (eight catches for 158 yards) and to Isaac Mahoe (6 catches for 63 yards) they put together an impressive 17 play, 68 yard drive that culminated in Smith’s one yard td plunge, and after Daelin Price’s (3-3 on extra points, four tackle assists) extra point try was true, the Blue Devils found themselves down 26-14 with 1:59 left in the third.
Arcola would once again try to respond, driving into VGH territory, but Brady Clodfelder’s (six solo tackles, one assist) PBU inside the twenty on fourth down would regain possession for Villa Grove Heritage. The Blue Devils next drive, highlighted by a 28-yard completion from Smith to Howard and an 18-yard Zimmerman scamper, would move to the Arcola 26 before stalling with a fourth down incompletion.
Arcola, trying to run time off the clock, went conservative and the Devils defense, playing some of their most inspired football of the short season behind Luke Zimmerman (two solos, ten assists) and Jack Benschneider (eight solos, three assists, one tackle for loss) held the Riders to a three and out, and after Benschneider’s fair catch of the Riders’ punt, the Blue Devils found themselves with good starting field position at their own 43. From there, it took just four plays for VGH to find pay dirt, as Smith hit Howard on first down for 24, then found Matt Gulick for nine to set themselves up at the Arcola 17. A two-yard Zimmerman carry setup Smith’s 15-yard TD toss to Benschneider, who outwrestled Edwards to maintain partial possession of the pigskin as they tumbled to the ground. Once again, Price stroked the extra point through the uprights, and with 3:16 remaining, the Blue Devils trailed 26-21. Again, the defense held firm, forcing another Arcola punt, which combined with a block in the back penalty, set the Blue Devils up at their own nine yard line with less than two minutes remaining. Smith started the drive with a nice ball fake to Zimmerman before scampering in front of the Arcola bench for 12 yards, but his first down pass on the next play was picked by Edwards, his fifth INT of the game (IHSA state record is six) at the VGH 21. From there, the Riders took a knee and ran out the clock on a 26-21 win, leaving them with a 4-1 record on the season. The Devils, who played their first game of the season while missing nine defensive starters, showed incredible resolve, both in this game and on the season, as they finished with a record of 3-3, and with a bevy of talented underclassmen, should be a sound program for the next several years.