Leading up the critical Week 5 matchup with the Elder Panthers, Saint Ignatius Head Football Chuck Kyle ’69 pondered the question, “Are we ready to say we’re a playoff caliber team?”
The Wildcats answered with a resounding “Yes” on Saturday.
On the first day of fall at Byers Field, the Wildcats posted a commanding all-around effort in a 17-7 victory over a strong Panthers team.
On offense, quarterback Patrick Delahunty keyed a quick-strike passing attack and Jahadge “Bo” Floyd pounded the Panthers with his hard-charging attack. On defense, the Wildcats’ front six hurried Elder quarterback Michael Bittner all day and the secondary kept the Panthers’ wideouts in check. All in all, the Wildcats were dominant.
“This is very big. This is a very quality team,” Kyle said. “Elder is going to win some games down there. It was good for our kids because they know this is a high caliber, playoff-type situation. We responded well.”
The Wildcats advanced to 3-2 on the year with the victory, marking the team’s first win on September 22 since 1990.
The contest started with good defensive play by both teams, as the Wildcats and Panthers traded punts. Danny Scelza’s strong coverage on an early third down and sacks by Zach McMahan and Anthony Gerace limited Elder on its first two drives.
The first big play of the game was made by visiting team. The Panthers blocked a punt and took possession of the ball at the Wildcats’ 30-yard line with 3:36 left in the first quarter. Elder drove inside the Wildcats’ 10, but the hosts held strong and forced a Panthers field goal. The 23-yard attempt fluttered wide left, keeping the score deadlocked at zero.
On the ensuing drive, the Wildcats began to march down the field. Delahunty connected with Connor Cmiel on a 16-yard sideline route and Floyd powered forward to drive the Football Cats to the Elder 34-yard line as the first quarter came to a close.
A key 15-yard pass interference on Elder on the first play of the second quarter moved the Wildcats to the edge of the red zone. Floyd got the Wildcats inside the 20, but Elder halted the drive at the 15-yard line. Rory McConville ensured the 12-play, 65-yard drive would not go for naught, converting a 32-yard field goal with 9:56 left in the second quarter.
Following an Elder three-and-out, the Wildcats hit the jackpot. Delahunty lofted a picture-perfect pass to a Jack Kennedy on a fly route down nearside hash marks. Kennedy caught the ball just past his defender and raced the rest of the way for a 72-yard score. McConville nailed the extra point, setting the advantage at 10-0 Saint Ignatius.
“It was a skinny post on the backside,” Kennedy said. “They were missing a corner, and their safeties come down every play, so we knew it would be open. I ran it, and Delly put it right over the shoulder. It was an amazing throw. I ran track, so that helps a lot. It was a great throw.”
The playcall was part of a deliberate gameplan by the Wildcats’ coaching staff to stretch the field.
“We thought we would get one-on-one a lot of times, and we wanted to take our shots,” Kyle said. “We have pretty good speed with Jack and Connor, so we took our shots. We had a couple we overthrew and you think, ‘We would like to have that.’ But we hit the big one. That was key. That popped it up 10-0.”
Elder started a drive of its own in response. The Panthers drove to the Wildcats’ 41-yard line before encountering a 4th down and 1. Michael Bittner took it up the middle on a quarterback draw to earn the big conversion. On the next set of downs, the drive stalled, due to an intense Saint Ignatius pass rush. Tommy Eichenberg blew threw for quarterback hits on back-to-back plays.
“[Blitzing] was part of the plan,” Eichenberg said. “A lot of blitzes, and the defense really helped me out, too. Just all-around, the defense had a really good day. Every day at practice, Coach [Ryan] Franzinger teaches us new moves. He’s awesome, he knows everything.”
The teams traded punts before halftime, as neither offense could generate much yardage. The Wildcats entered the break with a 10-0 advantage.
The Wildcats started with the ball in the second half. Cmiel allowed the team to start with great field position, taking the Elder kickoff 39 yards to the Elder 42-yard line. Delahunty soon connected with Kennedy for a 24-yard catch on the Wildcats sideline, fighting off pass interference. Delahunty found Ethan Biacsi down the middle on another great throw of 24 yards, sending the Wildcats into the Elder red zone.
Delahunty then did the job with his legs. On a 3rd and 13, the senior evaded the Elder pass rush and dashed 12 yards to the Panthers’ 2-yard line. Four plays later, following three impressive stops by Elder, Floyd pounded the ball into the end zone for six points. Floyd’s touchdown, the 11th of his career, concluded a 14-play, 58-yard drive. McConville’s PAT placed the lead at 17-0 Wildcats with 5:25 left in the third.
“On fourth and goal from the one, I know we have a good defense, so I thought, ‘What the heck, if they have it in, that’s okay. Just get it in.’ A field goal at that point isn’t a big deal. It worked, so that’s good,” Kyle said.
In the concluding moments of the third quarter, Elder began driving. Aided by a pass interference call on third down against the Wildcats, the Panthers drove to the Wildcats’ 42-yard line. Gerace made sure the Panthers would go no further, sacking Bittner on third down to force an Elder punt that ended the third stanza.
The Wildcats drove into Elder territory at the start of the third, wasting clock, but could not score. Pat Otter’s impressive point made the point moot, pinning Panthers inside their own 3-yard line. Elder started to gain momentum on offense, but Eichenberg sacked Bittner on third down to halt the drive and force an Elder punt.
The Wildcats turned the ball over for the first time with 6:21 left in the fourth quarter, on an intermediate pass down the Wildcats’ sideline. An unrelenting Saint Ignatius pass rush preventing Bittner from having much time in the pocket, forcing him to roll out on almost every pass.
Elder still managed to march down the field gradually, driving to the Wildcats’ 5-yard line with four minutes remaining. But a blitz up the middle by Eichenberg dashed Elder’s hopes of a comeback, as the senior sacked Bittner with 3:15 remaining. The turnover on downs granted the Wildcats the ball on the Elder 15-yard line.
After forcing Elder to burn its timeouts, the Wildcats punted it back to the Panthers. The visitors spoiled the shutout with 1:56 remaining, on a 16-yard pass from Bittner to Kyle Trischler. The Panthers converted the extra point, but could not recover the onside kick, effectively ending the game.
“We had to pound it. Their safeties just come up and go crazy on the run. It’s like you’re running against an 8-9 man front. You just have to be patient, and you’ll get some seams. Bo did and Jack did towards the end. We figured we’d run the ball, and when the safeties come up, take our shots.”
“Coming into the game, we knew we had to execute as an offensive unit, wide receivers especially,” Kennedy said. “The run game set up the pass game, and it was a playoff caliber game. Defense stepped up big time, they scored in the last minute, but it was a team win. This is the three in a row, we’re on a roll, this is the start of something special.”
The offense indeed showed off something special today. Delahunty finished 11-of-20 passing for 182 yards and a score. Kennedy hauled in 7 catches for 137 yards, a career-high for the junior.
On the ground, Floyd imposed his will. His hard-nosed running style helped to wear down the Panthers and set up the pass.
“We had to pound it. Their safeties just come up and go crazy on the run,” Kyle said. “It’s like you’re running against an 8-9 man front. You just have to be patient, and you’ll get some seams. Bo did and Jack did towards the end. We figured we’d run the ball, and when the safeties come up, take our shots.”
On the defensive side, the Wildcats executed a smart game plan.
The Wildcats blitzed Bittner and the Panthers relentless, limiting the time to throw in the pocket. The secondary also played well, covering Elder’s speedy wideouts effectively. Elder finished with 225 yards on offense, just 3.6 yards per play, completing 17-of-41 passes for 221 yards.
“It was a busy week,” Kyle said. “They do a lot, with shifting and unbalanced and their quarterback can run and throw, drop back and rollout. It took a lot of work. Tommy Eichenberg, as usual, made a lot of plays. The secondary did a really nice job. That’s a lot of communication that needs to take place. We knocked a lot of balls down.”
The Wildcats will stay at home next week, hosting Clarkson Football North on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Byers Field. Football North will enter with a 3-2 record (2-2 in OHSAA play) following a 38-28 win over Lorain on Friday.