On the road in their first round 6A playoff game, the Scouts trailed 21-7 at halftime to a Rolling Meadows team that featured a Division 1 recruit quarterback, Jack Milas (Ball State).
He had torched the Scouts secondary for 267 yards passing and three touchdowns. There was no reason to believe Milas wouldn’t continue his aerial assault in the second half. But hidden underneath the gaudy passing numbers, Lake Forest was actually working its defensive game plan.
They were hitting Milas.
“He’s the best quarterback we’ve faced all year. You have to give him a lot of credit,” Lake Forest coach Chuck Spagnoli said. "The thing I wasn’t sure about going in was we knew we had to knock him down and put him on the ground to shake some of his confidence.”
One play early in the game illustrated this: with just over seven minutes remaining in the first quarter, Rolling Meadows led 7-0 and had the ball on their own 36-yard line. On one of many Scouts blitzes, Milas stepped inside the pocket, away from the outside rush and found junior wide receiver Alex Niecikowski for a 64-yard touchdown. The score made it 14-0 Mustangs, but Milas was slow to get up after the play, the result of a hard hit by Lake Forest sophomore linebacker Jack Traynor.
Amidst the disappointment of allowing the touchdown, the Scouts had won a small battle.
“I made the comment (on the sidelines), ‘he looks shaky,’” Spagnoli said.
Added senior defensive lineman Tom Kutschke: “We wanted to get a lot of pressure on him. We knew he was a very good passer and (we wanted) throw him into bad throws and knock him down early so he’s a little giddy in the pocket.”
It wasn’t just the aggregate number of hits on the quarterback that quietly spurned the Scouts comeback. There was one smackdown which rang loud on the Lake Forest sidelines late in the third quarter.
Rolling Meadows had the ball on Lake Forest’s 40-yard line leading 24-14. A Mustangs touchdown would all but seal the game. Milas threw a swing pass to running back Steven Royster, who was pounded by senior linebacker Chris Wilson well behind the line of scrimmage, causing a fumble. Junior Regis Durbin came up on the ball, picked it up and raced 52 yards for a touchdown. The score made it a one score deficit, 24-21, but meant much more in turning the game’s momentum, which was one-sided at that point in Rolling Meadows’ favor.
“Watching film we saw he (Royster) fumbled twice against Prospect,” Wilson said. “Go for the ball and hope something good happens.”
After that, it was all good things for the Scouts. An Andrew Clifford (26-of-46 for 286 yards, three touchdowns) 9-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Freeman (three catches, 26 yards) gave Lake Forest its first lead of the game, 28-24 with 11:22 remaining in the game. On the Mustangs next possession, junior linebacker Trent Williams (10 tackles) tipped a pass from Milas which Kutschke (six tackles, one sack) snatched from the air for an interception. Five plays later, Clifford found senior running back Scott Powell (six catches, 62 yards) for a two-yard touchdown, and just like that, Lake Forest led 35-24.
When Durbin picked off Milas (34-of-69, 428 yards, four interceptions) with 2:56 left and went 21 yards for the final Scouts touchdown of the night, the comeback was complete. It was the fourth interception of the night by Lake Forest, to go along with three sacks and too-numerous-to-count knockdowns of the Rolling Meadows quarterback.
You want to beat an accurate quarterback? You make him get rid of the ball faster than he wants. And when he does, you hit him, again and again. Eventually, the Milas passing touch was no longer soft, but hard, like a Jimmy Page guitar riff.
“At the end of the game he stated missing a lot of throws,” Kutschke said. “They had a lot of four and outs at the end of the game, a lot of incompletions.”
Added Spagnoli: “From what I see, by the end of the game, I think the hits from the first half mounted up into the second half.”
Lake Forest hosts Lakes Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in a class 6A second round playoff game.