STERLING – In the final installment of Sterling-Dixon football for the foreseeable future, the Dukes made Sterling’s biggest weapon, Logan Wharff, a nonfactor in the passing game.
Unfortunately for the Big Northern West-bound Dukes, the Sterling senior put his stamp on Friday’s Northern Illinois Big 12 West clash in a variety of other ways.
His two rushing scores staked Sterling to a lead, and his pick-six all but put the game on ice, as his Warriors pulled away for a 48-21 victory.
Sterling (4-4, 2-2 NIB-12 West), needing to win Friday and next week in Ottawa, jumped out to a 14-0 lead in less than half a quarter.
After a Dixon (2-6, 1-3) three-and-out, Wharff lined up in the Wildcat and rushed right for 9 yards, then ran its mirror image left, only he went 52 yards untouched to pay dirt. That opened an eight-carry, 135-yard performance.
From the punt formation, Dixon quarterback JD Gieson – also the Dukes’ punter – threw a pick in Sterling territory. Draque Penaflor-Heier took advantage, running 50 yards off tackle right, setting up his own 1-yard plunge on third-and-goal with 7:15 left in the first. Tony Diaz added the second of six straight points after.
But the Dukes responded with a 12-play, 71-yard touchdown drive. After showing some guts in scrambling 7 yards to convert a fourth-and-7 from the Sterling 40, Gieson scrambled right on the next play and found Matt Coffey all alone downfield. That is, aside from teammate Quinton Douglas. Coffey caught the ball and pinballed off Douglas and into the end zone.
Two drives later, Cody Mighell scored the first of his two 1-yard touchdowns but missed the point after, leading to a 14-13 Sterling edge at the break.
Matt Coffey, who caught five balls for 55 yards, caught a screen along the left sideline and was immediately wrapped up by Wharff. Realizing the officials weren’t going to whistle the play in the grasp, Wharff stripped the ball and recovered it, setting up the first of consecutive touchdown runs by Sterling Thornton.
The first was from 3 yards, the next from 36 and coming right after the plucky sophomore put a deep ball right in Jacob Kirchhoff’s hip pocket down the left sideline.
Thornton – and incumbent starter Bryant Lilly – found out Monday that the youngster would get the bulk of the snaps at QB, while Lilly would predominantly play fullback.
“We’ve got two quarterbacks who can do great things,” Lilly said. “We can both run – he’s faster – and we can both throw.”
“Oh yeah. I had a lot of nerves,” Thornton said. “But when I got laid out at the 10-yard line on my first drive, everything went away. I felt pretty good.”
What felt better yet was handing the ball to Wharff on a jet sweep left on the first drive of the fourth quarter, then watching the senior go all video game on the secondary.
He juked Douglas at the Dixon 40, cutting toward the middle of the field. When Coffey tried to size him up, Wharff juked again, leaving the safety grabbing air as Wharff scooted to the end zone for a 35-21 lead.
“That’s just instinct,” Wharff said. “My ability helps me out a little bit. But that front five? That space wouldn’t have been cleared out without them.”
With Dixon driving deep in Sterling territory, a heavy rush helped Wharff put the game on ice. Rafael Escalante and Joe Brouillette converged on Gieson, forcing him to throw the ball right early. Wharff jumped it and went 80 yards untouched.
Gieson was 13-for-26 for 202 yards, but threw three picks. Mighell had another 1-yard TD plunge midway through the third, and Douglas caught five passes for 95 yards.
“We were all pumped and wanted to go out with a win against our biggest rival,” Mighell said. “But mistakes were made. You can’t blame anyone. We’ve just got to come back strong next week.”
Star of the game: Logan Wharff, Sterling, 8 carries, 135 yards, 2 TDs, 80-yard interception return
Key performers: Sterling Thornton, Sterling, 3-for-12, 60 yards, 14 carries, 73 yards, 2 TDs; Cody Mighell, Dixon, 21 carries, 77 yards, 2 TDs
Up next: Dixon at Streator; Sterling at Ottawa, both 7:30 p.m. Friday