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The Illini West football team secured a playoff berth with a 28-27 road victory over Pittsfield on Friday night. This game's outcome was in doubt right up to the end as the Chargers had to turn away a late Saukee two-point conversion try in the game's waning seconds and then recover Pittsfield's on-side kick attempt.
Senior defensive end Braxton Boyer made the game-saving tackle on the Saukee QB with only 28 seconds left to play to help secure the win and possibly save the Illini West football season. Classmate Braxton Squier recovered the ensuing Pittsfield on-side kick attempt to allow the Chargers to run out the clock and secure their sixth win. That sixth win guarantees the Chargers appearance in the post season play-offs.
Had the Chargers (6-3, 3-3) lost, it would have been in a precarious position with playoff points. They now enter the post season for the seventh time in the seven-year history of Illini West High School. The Chargers drew undefeated Three Rivers Conference champion Rockridge (9-0) in the first round of the Illinois High School Association Class 2-A play-offs.
The Chargers led 22-7 early in the third quarter before Pittsfield mounted a comeback. A pair of Saukee touchdown drives were fueled by Charger turnovers during that third quarter.
The Chargers answered the Pittsfield threat with a scoring drive of their own and junior QB Braden Bennett padded the Chargers' lead to 28-21 on a 3-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
The Saukees (3-6, 2-4), responded on their "senior night" like a team with 20 seniors would, by not quitting. They put together a nine minute drive and eventually reached the end zone with 28 ticks left on the game clock. The talented and determined Saukee QB attempted to sweep around the Chargers' defensive right side but Boyer got his hands on him and held on for all he was worth until he could drag him down.
The Chargers rolled up 289 yards rushing, but were hurt by four turnovers and some questionable penalties, one of which brought back an IW scoring run. Pittsfield had 182 yards on the ground and 127 through the air, as they actually outgained the Chargers.
Senior fullback Leighton Johnson rushed for 124 yards on 14 carries and three touchdowns for Illini West. Johnson scored on runs of 1, 33 and 62 yards.
Junior halfback Austin Curfman had 10 carries for 86 yards to help the Charger cause, but his ankle injury late in the game leaves his availability for the play-off opener in doubt. Bennett chipped in 12 yards on two carries, while Jacob Scholl added 8 yards on 4 attempts.
The Charger pass attack did not fare well as Bennett was unable to make connection with any Chargers on his two pass attempts. Unfortunately both passes were caught, just not by Charger receivers. One of the interceptions, which actually may have been a fumble into the air, was returned 51-yards for a Saukee touchdown. In Bennett's defense he was not afforded much time or protection by the Illini West offensive line on any of his pass attempts.
The Charger defense spent way too much time on the field, which is reflected in the team's tackle chart. Linebackers Braxton Squier and Jacob Gittings, plus cornerback Dalton Merry, all finished with 10 total tackles (solo tackles plus assisted tackles). Johnson and Curfman finished with 8 stops each, while junior nose tackle Colton Ragain and senior defensive end Dylan Chandler each had 7 total tackles, respectively.
Also on the tackle chart were Braxton Boyer (4 tackles), Blaze Murfin (4), Nolan Ard (4), Collin Swanson (3), Bryor Grotts (2), Gabe Thompson ( 2), Kendall Hall (2), Dusty Waddell (1), and Dalton Elliott (1).
The Chargers will now travel north this Friday to square-off with Rockridge. The Rockets are state-ranked and riding high through their first year in the Three Rivers Conference. Rockridge is a very familiar opponent for Illini West, as they both spent the last four years as members of the West Central Conference. All of their previous meetings have been very competitive, with the Chargers coming out on top in three of the four. The game is tentatively slated for a 7:00 p.m. kick-off, subject to IHSA approval.