"Keep your heads up."
That was the first thing Oak Park and River Forest coach Jim Nudera told his players as they huddled on the field following Saturday's 21-14 home loss to Downers Grove South.
For four quarters, OPRF (1-1) stood toe-to-toe with the Mustangs (2-0), a perennial power favored to compete for the West Suburban (Gold) Conference crown this season, and sometimes outplayed them?#34;nearly erasing a two-touchdown deficit in the game's final five minutes.
But a few mental breakdowns sprinkled throughout a hot day for football and an explosive Downers offense held the Huskies back.
"I was proud of the effort our kids put forth," said Nudera. "They fought, they fought like warriors. But we need to concentrate harder."
Take the first half. The Huskies nearly matched the Mustangs in total offensive yards (154-132), out-possessed them (about 14 minutes to nine) and notched more first downs (six to four). The only difference was a 67-yard touchdown passing play (and the ensuing extra point) on the Mustangs' second play from scrimmage, almost three minutes into the game.
The Huskies had their chances in the first half. Two long offensive series ended with OPRF turning the ball over on downs deep in Downers' territory?#34;at the 26-yard-line and then the 6. On both of these drives, the Huskies were penalized a combined three times for 15 yards. One of these penalties, an illegal shift call, waved off an 18-yard completion from senior quarterback Rick Foytik to senior wideout Jason Simmons that would've set up first-and-goal from the 3 with 3:51 remaining in the first quarter.
"It has nothing to do with ability," explained Nudera. "We just have to focus on what needs to be done. When you play high-powered teams with all the pieces in the right place, you need that concentration at the highest level."
The Huskies finally strung together a complete offensive series on their first possession of the second half. An 11-play, 89-yard trek took nearly four minutes off the clock and ended with senior tailback De'Angelo Wisdom's 15-yard TD run at the 5:50 mark of the third quarter. Senior David Studer's extra point knotted the score at 7-7.
"We came together as a group," said Wisdom, whose rushing produced both of OPRF's touchdowns. "I talked to the linemen, they talked to me. We made a few minor adjustments. They just sprang me right up the field for a touchdown."
The statistics that defined the first half of play largely continued through the remainder of the game. The Huskies fell three yards short of the Mustangs' total output of 313, but topped the visitors in first downs (17-9) and time of possession (24:43 to 23:17).
But again, big plays from Downers stung OPRF. The Mustangs' eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive, which gave them a 14-7 lead with 2:22 left in the third quarter, began and ended with two big completions to the game's top receiver, Rick Loisi (six catches for 151 yards, two TDs)?#34;a 42-yard strike and a 29-yard TD pass. Loisi's second TD catch, a 20-yard end zone strike, led to the Mustangs taking a 21-7 lead at the 9:21 mark of the fourth quarter.
The Huskies threatened on their ensuing possession, but fumbled the ball away on the Downers' 27. (It was the game's only turnover.) After his team forced the Mustangs to go three-and-out on their next possession, junior back-up quarterback Justin Brown, who relieved an injured Foytik, led a 10-play, 54-yard drive capped by Wisdom's 2-yard surge into the end zone with 1:09 left to play. Studer's kick pulled the Huskies to within seven.
The Huskies failed on a subsequent onside kick and, with no timeouts left, could not stop the Mustangs from running out the clock.
OPRF opens West Suburban (Silver) play Friday at Lyons (0-2). Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m.