When discussing the exploits of Naperville Central’s defense earlier in the week, Naperville North coach Sean Drendel knew full well what his team couldn’t do.
Specifically mentioning the ability and propensity of Naperville Central’s defense to take the ball away and create points off those takeaways, Drendel knew his team had to take care of the rock.
Mike Ulreich’s defensive charges answered the bell by forcing five turnovers as the defending Class 8A state champions cruised to a 27-6 victory over Naperville North Friday night at North Central College’s Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
All told, in winning their fifth straight game and clinching playoff eligibility in the process, the 11th-ranked Redhawks forced six Huskie turnovers—highlighted by four interceptions.
Matt Lehmann, Michael Kolzow and Garrett Purdy all came down with first-half interceptions of Huskies’ quarterback Evan Kujawski while Daniel Delgrosso sacked Kujawski and returned the ensuing fumble for a TD to give the Redhawks a 24-0 lead midway through the third quarter.
“We stress hustling to the football every play. I saw Joe (Schweikart) make a nice play on (Kujawski) and I’m running, about to go celebrate with him and I see the ball on the ground and picked it up,” Delgrosso said. “It was exciting.”
Set up by a Lehmann interception late in the first quarter, Naperville Central (5-1, 2-0 DuPage Valley) rode Kevin Clifford early and often on the drive that Clifford ended with an one-yard TD run on the first play of the second quarter, giving the Redhawks a 10-0 lead.
Clifford’s 174 yards in the first half represented the majority of the offense from either side as the two teams combined for four turnovers.
“We worked really hard all week. Our scout team defense did an unbelievable job of really working our O-line and getting them going,” said Clifford, who gashed the Huskies’ defense to the tune of 256 yards. “To be honest, Wednesday—we didn’t have a great practice. But we really stepped it up Thursday and came into this place with a little bit of fire and a little bit of an edge.
“Deep down, we knew we have a lot of talent. We knew we should have really pounded it at them and that’s exactly what we did. Coach (Mike) Stine trusted in me again.”
For a defense allowing just a shade over eight points a game coming in, the interceptions hauled in from Lehmann, Michael Kolzow and Garrett Purdy raised the number of Redhawk defenders to get a pick this season to 9.
The Redhawks’ defense limited the Huskies to minus-five yards rushing while putting pressure on both Kujawski and at times, Chris Gajcak, to make plays from the quarterback position.
“It’s effort. It’s all effort. We work on the game plan every week and then we go and execute with effort and good things happen,” Delgrosso said of the Redhawks’ success defensively under Ulreich, their defensive coordinator.
For Naperville North (2-4, 0-2 DuPage Valley), which broke the potential shutout courtesy of a Gajcak TD pass to Matt Herring on a double-reverse pass late in the third, it must win out in order to keep its consecutive postseason streak of 17 alive.
Gajcak had eight catches for 88 yards for the Huskies, who have lost four straight games and welcome Wheaton Warrenville South to town next week.
“Despite losing (Friday) night, this isn’t over with. As seniors, they got three more games. You win three more games, you’re in the playoffs,” Drendel said. “Playoffs, for us, start next week. So we just got to keep getting better. We were better (Friday) night. I know the scoreboard doesn’t quite look (like) it, but we were better (Friday) night than we were last week (against Lake Park).
“So, to me, we made some progress. It wasn’t enough and we still shot ourselves in the foot too much. But we were better (Friday) night and we need to keep moving on. As juniors, you’re prepping for next year. This is a chance to keep getting better and hopefully we don’t end in this situation next year.”