ROCHELLE – In a 27-22 upset win over Rochelle in the 4A playoffs, Rockford Lutheran laid to rest any claims that they were incapable of playing with a physically-imposing team from the Northern Illinois Big 12 East.
“They were supposed to be bigger, faster, and from a tougher conference,” Lutheran coach Bruce Bazsali. “People don’t understand how tough our kids are.”
With the way the game started, it appeared the Hubs would prove the prognosticators correct. The Hubs forced a Lutheran fumble at midfield, and drove to the 5-yard line for a first-and-goal.
In the first of many surprises to Rochelle, the Crusaders stiffened and kept the Hubs from scoring. Lutheran had a third-and-10 from the 9-yard line, and again it looked like Rochelle would get the ball back with good field position and restart its high-powered ground game.
Instead, quarterback Kendall Lawson found James Robinson in the flat, and the 195-pound sophomore broke free for a critical first down. Lawson then got the Crusaders out of a second-and-22 situation with consecutive completions, the second a 61-yard touchdown to a wide-open Austin Sikora, after defensive back Griffin Gabriel fell down.
“After fumbling, it didn’t bother us,” Lawson said. “We knew we could play with them. Nobody was giving us credit.”
Evan White, who led all rushers with 230 yards, fumbled on the Hubs’ next possession, and Robinson scored on a 32-yard run on the first play of the second quarter to make it 13-0.
“Their running back is the real deal,” Rochelle defensive coordinator Chris Lewis said. “Lutheran did a good job of matching our physical play.”
White got Rochelle back in the game with 58-yard touchdown, in which he cut right, cut left, then outran the Lutheran defense.
The Hubs forced a punt, but another mistake proved costly. Miscommunication between quarterback Angel Burciaga and receiver Marquez Felix resulted in a Crusader interception by Joey Caravello.
On the next play, it was the speedy Robinson getting outside and racing 22 yards for a touchdown and a 19-8 lead, silencing the Hubs’ large home crowd.
“We kind of dug ourselves in a hole in the first half, and that killed us,” White said.
White, who carried the Hubs on his back, gave his team some life with a 29-yard touchdown run, cutting the margin to 19-16 early in the third quarter.
His counterpart, Robinson, then added 29 of his 201 rushing yards on his third touchdown of game to make it 27-16, as the Hubs struggled to slow down the Crusaders’ offense.
Rochelle used two fourth-down conversions and a 32-yard pass from Burciaga to Keegan Akers to get within 27-22 on the last play of the third quarter.
Rochelle finally got the much-needed stop of Lutheran with consecutive sacks of Lawson. Following a punt, Rochelle had the ball at its own 27-yard line with 8 minutes left.
“It felt like we finally had momentum on our side,” Lewis said.
Reminiscent of a 20-14 playoff loss to Kaneland 2 years ago, the Hubs began what could have been a fourth-quarter winning drive. On a fourth-and-5, White was hit in the backfield, but broke free for a first down. Then, under pressure, Burciaga managed to get a 17-yard pass off to a diving White.
With the Rochelle crowd loudly cheering, a 10-yard White run set up a first down at the 20-yard line with 2 minutes left.
Unfortunately for the Hubs, the drive died at the 16-yard line, close to the same spot of the field as it did against Kaneland in 2011.
“Not getting that first touchdown of the game, and mistakes, really hurt us,” Lewis said.
Lutheran advances to the quarterfinals for the first time, after moving up two classes from last year because of the IHSA’s multplier for non-boundaried schools.
“It’s kind of a blur how we won this,” said Bazsali, who called the win one of his best in 40 years of coaching.