Panthers discover answer to Dixon Who?
Years from now, players on the 2016 Carlinville football team can tell their kids and grandkids about playing in the state championship football game.
It all became a reality on a bitterly windy, chilly Saturday afternoon in Virden at Bruna Athletic Field.
Carlinville held on to beat North Mac 27-21 in the Class 3A state semifinals and head to the finals for the first time since 1993 and the third time overall.
Any questions that North Mac fans had to the Dixon Who? sign along Route 4 were answered in a big way as the senior again led the way with several big runs, defensive stops, even a halfback throw to his younger brother.
But the group of seniors who have been building for this moment since their JFL days eight years ago will have their day in the sun, getting a taste of Champaign Friday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
Game time Friday is 4 p.m. between the 12-1 Cavies and the 13-0 Knights of Elmhurst Immaculate Conception.
As far as Saturday was concerned, senior Jake Hannig, the starting center, said “He’s a great running back and he always gives us credit. But he’s all-state and a great player. Just a good overall football player.”
J. Dixon rushed for 267 yards on 40 carries with three touchdowns, returned a fumble 65 yards in the first half for a key touchdown, then sealed the game with an interception in the final seconds.
Senior Brady Egelhoff knew that running between the tackles was going to be key, especially with the windy conditions.
“We had to shut down their run game – they have three great running backs,” Egelhoff said. “I thought we did a good job and they did a good job stopping us but we just came out on top. It was a battle of the trenches. We couldn’t pass much today and we knew that going in. We keyed on running the ball a lot and hoping to get all those yards racked up like we do every other week.”
Even head coach Chad Easterday, who hadn’t advanced past the second round of the playoffs during his nine years, was quite in awe following the semifinal win.
“Our goal was to play 14 weeks and here we are,” Easterday said. “Playing 14 weeks.”
Carlinville fell behind 7-0 in the first quarter for the third straight week as North Mac went 63 yards on its second drive of the game after a partially blocked punt.
Grant Graham connected with Asa Donaldson on a 33-yard pass and then Griffin Hatella scored on a 15-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0.
That lead didn’t last long, as J.Dixon rumbled down the left side of the field 59 yards on the second play of the next drive, tying the game with 4:58 left in the opening quarter.
The Panthers were going with the end in the first quarter, and it aided them into scoring the next touchdown. Another 33-yard pass play to Donaldson set up a Hatalla two-yard run, capping a 65-yard drive in 10 plays. It was 14-7 Panthers with 1:23 left in the quarter.
Carlinville had the wind in the middle two quarters, missing a field goal attempt on its first drive of the second quarter.
North Mac had the ball and was again marching down field, taking time off the clock and gobbling up yards. On the 11th play of the drive from the Carlinville 40-yard line, Hatalla fumbled the ball.
J.Dixon scooped up the ball, bobbled it momentarily, then proceeded to return it all the way to the house. Carlinville led 13-7 with 3:37 left in the half.
That tricky wind cost North Mac on the next possession, as they were forced to punt. The ball went straight up into the air and then backwards for a net punt of negative two yards.
Carlinville took over at the North Mac 35 yard line with 1:34 left in the half. They needed just one minute.
Adam Walton connected with Konnor Emmons on a 23-yard pass play, setting up a J.Dixon three-yard score on third and goal. It went to the half a 21-14 game after Brady Jamieson hauled in the two-point conversion.
“We knew when we were going into the wind, that we were going to try our onside kicks and we were going to try our short screen game,” Easterday said. “We knew we’d have two quarters to take some shots.”
The Cavaliers went back to work in the third quarter, taking the opening kickoff and going 57 yards in just three plays.
Walton scrambled for a 22-yard run, and J.Dixon followed with a 35-yard touchdown to make it 27-14 with just 42 seconds gone.
Both defenses tightened for a while. Carlinville got as close as the North Mac 11 late in the third quarter, but the Panthers held and took over on downs.
North Mac bridged the third and fourth quarters by going on an 87-yard drive. Early in the fourth quarter, Zayne Langeiller hauled in an 18-yard touchdown from Graham, cutting Carlinville’s lead to 27-14 with 11:10 to play.
But the Cavies then went on one of its longest drives of the season, taking nearly half of the game clock off. The 14-play drive consisted of J.Dixon runs only. They got as close as the North Mac two-yard line, but lost footage on fourth down.
With 5:20 left and 94 yards separating North Mac and the lead, the Panthers went to work. But a big third down pass play to Donaldson was dropped. He was open on the play, but just couldn’t hang on. With 3:45 left, the Cavies got the ball back on a punt.
They went three and out, with North Mac using up its remaining timeouts. The Panthers started their final drive of the season, as it turned out, at its own 42 with 1:52 to play.
Egelhoff got a sack on third down, but a fourth-down pass interference call against the Cavies kept the drive alive.
On fourth down, Graham connected with Hatalla on an eight-yard pass for a first down.
North Mac got as close as the Carlinville 42-yard line, facing a fourth down and seven.
Graham lofted one down the left side, which was intercepted by J.Dixon with just 9.8 seconds left.
Victory formation followed, and the Cavies were champions of the south quadrant of Class 3A.
“I thought our game plan was good again – I thought our kids did a great job of executing again,” Easterday said. “I thing they stayed true to the course, which has been our motto since day one. Defensively, we made a few adjustments at halftime. I thought Coach Steiner did a wonderful job in the second half. All my coaches just made great adjustments.”
Egelhoff was grateful to get the chance to play the county rivals to the north. It was the first game between the county schools since the mid-1980s.
“We finally got to play them – we’ve been wanting to do this for all throughout these years,” Egelhoff said. “This is probably the biggest game we could have played them in. It was awesome.”
North Mac held a 384-349 edge in total yards and 26:09 to 21:51 edge in time of possession.
Kyle Dixon had one catch for 55 yards in the second quarter off a halfback option pass from his older brother. Emmons caught one pass for 23 yards.
Hatalla led North Mac with 164 yards and two touchdowns rushing. Donaldson rushed for 86 and Graham finished with 36 yards rushing.
Graham also completed four of 10 passes for 92 yards and one score, with one interception.