Fresh off a 10-2 record and Class 7A state quarterfinals appearance last season, Lincoln-Way East (with 14 returning starters) rolled into OPRF Stadium understandably confident on Friday night. What the Griffens, a preseason consensus Top 6 team in both Chicago daily newspapers, may have accounted for but couldn’t handle was the host Huskies’ suffocating defense. After a 48-minute tussle of hard hitting, OPRF notched the numbers that really matter with a 14-13 win over Lincoln-Way East.

“Some people had us counted out but this game really showed what kind of team we are,” OPRF junior safety Rolliann Sturkey. “We had a great week of practice and we knew we were going to win. This was a big statement game but now it’s time to move on and beat Addison Trail next week.”

Trailing Lincoln-Way East 13-7 with 7:23 left in the fourth quarter, OPRF went on an 8-play, 80-yard scoring drive to eke out its second victory in as many years over the Griffens. Senior running back Antonio Cannon provided the key play during the Huskies’ game-winning drive with a 60-yard run that put the ball at the Griffens’ 21. Four plays later, junior quarterback Jeremy Hunt threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Breshawn Wilkerson to tie the score at 13-13 with 5:34 remaining. Senior Keegan Smith converted the PAT to put OPRF up for good at 14-13.

Cannon scored the Huskies’ other touchdown on a 57-yard run up the middle at 10:05 of the second quarter to draw the score even at 7-7. Led by Cannon’s 127 yards on nine carries, the Huskies rushed for 138 yards on 23 carries overall against a fairly stout Lincoln-Way East defensive front. Wide receivers Wilkerson (7 catches, 59 yards) and Cole Fields (6 catches, 23 yards) along with timely receptions from Jeremy Gaines and Davion Talbert fueled the Huskies’ aerial attack.

“We wanted to keep pounding the ball and stay positive,” Cannon said. “I broke my (touchdown) run and the rest of the offense played well. I’m proud of our offensive line. They have come a long way from June until now.

“I’ve been waiting for this game since we lost to Barrington [39-15 in the Class 8A playoffs] last year. I’m so happy that football is finally back. Adversity hit us (against Lincoln-Way East) but we persevered through which I’m happy about. We have worked so hard and I expect greatness from this team.”

OPRF defense looks like the real deal

Although the Huskies generated enough offense with Hunt making his varsity debut and playmakers like Cannon, Wilkerson and Jamarri Watson, their defense stole the show Friday night. After repeatedly limiting the Griffens to either field goals or no points in the red zone, OPRF fittingly closed out Lincoln-Way East with a final dramatic stop. With 1:55 left in the game, defensive end Allen Stallings (10 tackles) tackled the Griffens’ star running back Liam Morrissey behind the line of scrimmage on a fourth-and-1 at the OPRF 25.

The Huskies held Lincoln-Way East to 146 yards on 49 rushes (3 yards per carry) and 211 yards of total offense on 66 plays. Morrissey, one of the better running backs in the Chicago area, was held in relative check with 120 yards rushing on 29 carries. OPRF also recorded a pair of sacks, seven pass breakups and limited the Griffens to just a 6-for-19 (31.6 percent) conversation rate on third down.

In fact, Lincoln-Way East’s lone touchdown in the second quarter (7-yard touchdown run by quarterback Brandon Bauer) came in large part due to Jayison McCorkle returned a punt 71 yards. Despite holding a 29:02 to 18:58 time of possession advantage, Lincoln-Way East simply couldn’t wear down OPRF’s deep, versatile defense.

“(Lincoln-Way East) had a great punt return which put them on a short field and they punched one in,” OPRF coach John Hoerster said. “I thought in every other facet of the game, our defense played outstanding football. Lincoln-Way East has five returning starters on the offensive line and a 1,500 yard rusher (Morrissey) so our defense stepped up big time. Plus, a bunch of kids got out there and played for us which is even more exciting. Our defensive depth really came up huge for us.”

In the second half, Lincoln-Way East had the ball inside the OPRF 15 yard line on multiple occasions only to come away with a pair of field goals by kicker Nick Jenig. Jenig’s second field goal, from 31 yards out, extended the Griffens’ lead to 13-7 midway through the fourth quarter.

“We just buckled down,” OPRF senior middle linebacker Jahmari Moore said. “One thing we talk about is optimism. When a bad play happens, we have to pick each other up, stay positive and worry about the next play. To be honest, I just broke down in tears when that final buzzer sounded because it’s an amazing feeling to know that hard works pays off.”

The Huskies’ dominant defensive performance highlighted several players, including the team’s terrific group of linebackers in Moore, Sam Francis (8.5 tackles), Ryan Molina (5 tackles) and Evan Bell, along with Stallings and Connor Nelson on the defensive line and Sturkey and Wilkerson in the secondary.

Supported by such a stingy defense, the 6-3, 210-pound Hunt (19-for-34, 145 yards, touchdown, 2 interceptions) performed well under center.

“Jeremy can get better and sharper, but I thought his decisions were perfect,” Hoerster said. “For a junior to show that kind of composure, I’m so proud of him. He threw some outstanding balls and some were drops by our receivers. I have 100 percent faith that our wide receivers will fix that and they came up big in the second half.

“The other thing about our offense is we don’t have that one big star, but we have a lot of guys who can make plays. Whether it’s Antonio, Jamarri (Watson), Cole (Fields), Airmando (Flores) and on down the line, we have a lot of capable playmakers.”

OPRF (1-0) hosts Addison Trail on Friday, Sept. 4. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. at OPRF Stadium.

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Marty Farmer

The Illinois Press Association recently honored Marty with the 1st & 2nd Place Awards for Best Sports Feature for his article He's in an Oak Park state of mind: Former OPRF star Iman Shumpert returns...