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Chargers Fall to Raiders 29–26, Miss Playoffs

The Illini West Chargers traveled across the state last Friday night hoping to secure their 5th win and a coveted spot in the IHSA play-offs. However, it was not to be as the Chargers fell in heart-breaking fashion to the Moweaqua Central A&M Raiders 29 – 26.

The Raiders scored with 14 seconds remaining to snatch victory away from the visiting Chargers, who had taken a 26 – 21 lead with 1:43 left in the fourth quarter. The loss drops the Chargers to 4 – 5 on the season and thus ends their 2023 campaign short of a play-off berth.

After kicking off to start the game, the Chargers defense was able to force a punt on the host Raiders’ first possession of the night. However, the Chargers were not able to do much with their initial possession as well and punted the ball right back to the Raiders 5 plays later.

Moweaqua then marched the ball down the field 65 yards in only 7 plays, running in the game’s first touchdown from 33 yards out. A successful extra point kick put A&M up 7 - 0 with 5:44 left in the first quarter.

The Chargers responded with a big special teams play, as senior Lucas Finch returned the ensuing Raider kickoff 50 yards back to the Moweaqua 35-yard line. The Charger offense would take advantage of the big return and good field position by marching the final 35 yards in eight plays. Illini West would finish the drive with a touchdown on a 6-yard run by senior running back Jorge Espinoza. The conversion failed, but the Chargers now trailed 7 – 6 with 1:19 left in the first quarter.

The host Raiders then showed their mettle by putting together a 10-minute, 20-play drive that culminated with them scoring at the 3:12 mark of the 2nd quarter with their second rushing touchdown of the game. A successful conversion run put them up 15 – 6.

The Chargers would take possession after the ensuing kick-off at their own 35-yard line and used a 25-yard run by sophomore Isaiah Knotts on a fake punt to get inside the Raider 30-yard line. Unfortunately, time in the first half would run out on this Charger drive with the ball just inside the Raider 10-yard line.

Following the halftime intermission, the Chargers received the opening kick-off of the 2nd half but could only reach midfield before they were forced to punt the ball back to the Raiders. A great punt by Espinoza pinned A&M deep inside their own 15-yard line.

The Charger defense would stiffen at this point. IW junior defensive end Roan Jackson tackled the would-be Raiders ball carrier for

a 10-yard loss on first down, putting A&M in 2nd and long from their own 5-yard line. A fumbled snap on the next Raider play was then recovered in the endzone by Charger junior Stephen Sparks for an Illini West touchdown. A successful conversion run by

Charger junior Nick Johnson closed the Raider lead to 15 – 14 with 9:11 left in the 3rd quarter.

A controversial Charger on-side kick attempt would follow, with the officials eventually giving possession to the host Raiders at midfield. Seven plays and three penalties later the Raiders would find the endzone again to push their advantage to 21 – 14.

The Chargers would respond, however, as another huge kick-off return by Finch would spark the visitors. This time Finch’s return was for 54 yards and set the IW offense up at the Moweaqua 34-yard line.

Ignited by Finch’s big return, the Chargers would quickly answer with a 5-play scoring drive that would finish with an 8-yard blast up the middle by senior running back Ian Bentzinger. The failed conversion attempt would leave the Chargers trailing 21 – 20 as the third quarter would soon draw to a close.

The Raiders would answer the IW challenge by driving 70 yards in 11 plays down to the Illini West 4-yard line, where the Charger defense would stop the Raiders on 4th and goal. The Charger’s offense could do very little from there and were forced to punt from their own endzone. Espinoza came up big from there with a 55-yard punt to flip field position and give the ball back to the Raiders at their own 41-yard line.

This time the Charger defense would step up and force a Raider punt from around midfield with only 3:43 left on the game clock. After the punt, the Chargers would take over on their own 19-yard line with 81 yards to go to get a go-ahead score. Faced with a long field and little time left on the clock, the visiting Chargers would use the big play again to get back in the contest.

On 3rd and 6 from their own 38-yard line, the Chargers dialed up the right play when senior running back Ian Bentzinger took the pitch around left end and raced 62 yards to the score. The touchdown with 1:43 left in the 4th quarter put the Chargers up for the first time in the game, 26 – 21.

Unfortunately, the game’s final offensive magic would come a little over a minute and a half later when the Raiders would hook up for an 11-yard touchdown pass to cap a final scoring drive. That pass and subsequent conversion would give the Raiders their final margin of 29 – 26 for the victory.

The Charger offense had some success in this game but was unable to consistently control the line of scrimmage. The Charger run game amassed 198 yards on 31 carries, but that total also included 10 runs for no gain or negative yardage. Illini West was forced to rely on the big play for most of its offensive output.

The leading rusher for Illini West was senior running back Ian Bentzinger, who closed out his Charger football career with 135 yards on 16 carries. Sophomore Isaiah Knotts added 36 yards on 3 carries, while junior Nick Johnson picked up 22 yards on 5 attempts.

The Charger passing game struggled to find time and consistency, with junior quarterback Max Kinnamon completing 3 passes on 8 attempts for only 16 yards. Espinoza had two of the receptions for 12 yards, while Johnson had the other grab for 4 yards.

Defensively, the Chargers were on the field way too much and it showed in some of the individual totals.

Senior safety Bradly Miller led the way with 12 total tackles (solos and assists combined).

Junior defensive end Roan Jackson was involved in 10 total tackles, including a pair of tackles for loss.

Junior linebacker Shawn Watkins added 9 total tackles, while junior defensive back Max Kinnamon, junior defensive end Stephen Sparks, senior linebacker Jorge Espinoza, senior linebacker Ian Bentzinger and junior safety Nick Johnson had 6 stops apiece.

Also on the tackle chart were sophomore defensive tackle Izik Jones with 4, senior defensive tackle Nick Huls with 4, senior defensive back Lucas Finch with 3, senior linebacker Thomas Chandler with 2, junior safety Brady Blanton with 2 and sophomore Ethan Carlisle with 1.

As mentioned before, the Chargers close their season with a final mark of 4 wins and 5 losses. Although this mark leaves them short of the 5 wins necessary to qualify for the state play-offs, the team played hard, showed resilience in the face of adversity, and always represented their school and communities with enthusiasm, sportsmanship, class, and perseverance. They fought hard for victory and they certainly appreciate everyone who came out to support them during their 2023 season.