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Prairieland Football: Chargers Win Homecoming Thriller, 28-22

The Illini West Chargers football team treated a large 2022 Homecoming crowd to a thrilling last-minute 28-22 victory over the visiting South Fulton Rebels last Friday night at Fuzz Burgess Field in Carthage.

The pivotal Prairieland Conference gridiron encounter saw the Chargers score a touchdown late to withstand a second half rally by the visiting Rebels.

Illini West now improves to 3-3 overall, and in the Prairieland, as they seek the five wins that would make them eligible for the IHSA play-offs.

The Chargers got off to a quick start in this game as they took the opening kick-off and set up inside their own 30 yard line.

After two plays, and with barely a minute gone, Charger senior quarterback Gannon Bergmann hit senior receiver Jerick LeMaire in stride on a 71-yard scoring strike down the Illini West sideline.

LeMaire then followed the TD up with a successful conversion run to give the Chargers an early 8-0 lead with 10:57 still left in the first quarter.

The Charger defense then stepped up to stop the visiting Rebels’ first offensive drive of the game, giving the ball back to the Charger offense around their own 40-yard line.

Patiently mixing the run and the pass, Illini West marched down the field and inside the Rebels’ 10-yard line.

Finally on the 15th play of the drive, Bergmann connected with junior receiver Jorge Espinoza for a 6-yard touchdown toss in the right side flat of the north end zone early in the 2nd quarter.

The conversion pass was unsuccessful, but the Chargers now led 14-0 with 11:49 to go in the 2nd quarter.

The two teams then traded short drives for most of the remainder of the first half until a final Charger 10-yard line. Two plays later the Rebel QB scored with only 5 seconds left in the half. The successful Rebel conversion run brought the visitors to within 14-8 at half and created a huge swing of momentum to the Rebel side as the two teams went into the intermission.

After the extended Homecoming halftime break, the two teams returned to the field, both trying to re-establish an edge that would swing the game their way.

After the Charger defense forced a South Fulton punt on the Rebels opening possession of the second half, the Chargers offense would take over deep in their own territory.

On the 2nd play of the drive, Bergmann would connect with senior wide-out Drake Mudd on a short pass over the middle. Mudd would make a would-be Rebel tackler miss, and then raced almost 70 yards up the Illini West sideline before finally being tackled at the Rebel 15-yard line.

From there, the Charger offense would overcome two TD’s being called back by holding penalties and would eventually score on an 11-yard screen pass from Bergmann to junior running back Ian Bentzinger.

A successful conversion run by senior running back Peyton Brown extended the Illini West lead to 22-8 with 4:15 to go in the 3rd quarter.

The Rebels were not ready to quit however, and they quickly answered the Charger touchdown with a score of their own.

Following some strong running and a nice slant route for 40 plus yards, the Rebels scored with 24 seconds left in the 3rd quarter on a QB sneak.

The Chargers’ defense stopped the conversion, but their advantage had been cut to 22-14 going into the final period.

Needing to re-establish momentum, the Charger offense would then turn the ball over on their next possession to give the visiting Rebels the break they needed.

South Fulton’s offense would methodically march down the field. Using primarily their rushing attack, the Rebels finally score on a short pass with 6:31 left in the final quarter. A successful conversion run would knot the score at 22-all.

To make the situation even more dire for the host Chargers, the Rebels would execute a successful on-side kick on the ensuing kick-off giving the South Fulton offense possession near midfield. This time however, the Charger defense would rise to the occasion and force a Rebel punt to end the South Fulton threat.

Taking over offensively inside their own 3-yard line, the Chargers would find the resolve to fight their way out of this difficult situation.

Three hard runs by Bergmann would get the Illini West offense out from under the shadows of their own goal posts and into a position on the field where they could more comfortably operate their offense.

Given this opportunity, Bergmann would then hit LeMaire on a 20 yard pass down the Rebel sideline to set the Illini West offense up around midfield with under two minutes left to play in the game.

Two plays later, the duo would hook up again, as Bergmann threw a 53-yard touchdown strike to the fleet-footed LeMaire, who had raced past the Rebel defender trying to cover him.

The Charger senior duo’s second long touchdown connection of the game gave the Chargers a 28-22 lead with only a minute left to play. Although the conversion was unsuccessful, the Charger defense would make that 6-point advantage stand up as they shut down the final Rebel offensive attempts to possibly tie or win the game, and thus secure a hard-fought Illini West victory.

Statistically the game was as tight as the final scoreboard outcome. South Fulton gained 374 yards of offense, while Illini West gained 371.

The Rebels dominated time of possession by running 64 plays to only 44 for the Chargers. The Rebels yardage was split with 193 passing (13 completions on 21 pass attempts) and 181 rushing. The Chargers threw for 266 yards (17 completions on 24 pass attempts) and 105 rushing.

The offensive leaders for Illini West were the senior pair of Bergmann and LeMaire. Bergmann did all of the throwing for the Chargers and ran 13 times for 84 yards, thus having a direct hand in all but 21 of the Charger’s yardage total. LeMaire caught 5 passes for 148 yards, including the game’s first and last scores.

Other receivers for IW included Drake Mudd with 3 catches for 79 yards, Jorge Espinoza with 4 receptions for 22 yards, Max Dittmer with 1 grab for 10 yards and Ian Bentzinger with 4 catches for 7 yards.

The rest of the Charger ground attack consisted of Peyton Brown with 3 carries for 12 yards, Thomas Chandler with 2 carries for 5 yards and Ian Bentzinger with 2 carries for 4 yards.

Defensively, the Chargers were led by LeMaire and junior defensive tackle Nick Huls with 6 tackles apiece. Junior linebacker Bradley Miller had 5 tackles, while senior defensive tackle Braxton Heath had 4 stops.

Lukas Finch, Shawn Watkins and Bentzinger were all involved in 3 tackles while Aiden Moore, Thomas Chandler, Reece Shoup and Bergmann each had one tackle.

The Chargers will return to action this Friday night when they travel to Knoxville to face the always tough Blue Bullets. This will be the lone non-conference game on the Illini West schedule. Knoxville enters the game 4 – 2 overall stinging from a 2-game losing streak.