The OPRF defense, shown here against Morton, has played well all season. The unit didn't allow a first down in the fourth quarter en route to a 21-14 win over Downers North on Sept. 28. (Photo by Carol Dunning)

During much of head coach John Hoerster’s tenure, the Oak Park and River Forest High School football team has been primarily known for good, proficient offense that generates excitement. 

While the offense certainly has produced some good moments, defense has been the Huskies’ calling card under coordinator Tim Fischer’s guidance this season.

The Huskies’ prowess on that side of the ball was evident in their 21-14 win over host Downers Grove North at Carstens Field on Friday, Sept. 28.

After a 65-yard touchdown run by Nazareth Bryant put the Huskies ahead for good at 21-14 in the third quarter, OPRF dominated defensively the rest of the way. In the fourth quarter, Downers Grove North failed to pick up a first down.

“They were disappointed because they gave up some big plays,” Hoerster said about the defense. “But we really buckled down in the second half. Those guys came to play. They played with energy and passion and some guys stepped up. It was fun to watch.”

Linebacker Cedric Cheatham knew the Huskies needed to pick up the pace defensively.

“We came out of halftime and said we’ve got to step it up; they can’t score again,” said Cheatham, who had a team-high seven tackles. “We’ve got to win this game for our team and that’s what we did.

“We’re just working hard,” he added. “We’re a close-knit group of guys that’s been playing for a long time. We love to play for each other and we go all out every game. That’s all we do.”

The hard-fought victory was the Huskies’ third in a row, against an obviously worthy opponent.

“Ever since I’ve been the head coach, (Downers North) has played us tough every year,” Hoerster said. “That No. 7 (Downers Grove North quarterback Drew Cassens) was all over the field. He’s a great football player. They had a lot of guys going both ways; those are tough kids. Hat’s off to them. Their coaches got them ready.”

Although there was no score after one quarter, OPRF had the best opportunity to put points on the board.

After recovering a Downers Grove North fumble around midfield, wide receiver Trevon Brown ran for 17 yards, followed by quarterback Jaden McGill’s 17-yard scamper to move the Huskies into the red zone. The drive stalled, however, and Henry Darrow’s field goal attempt fell short.

Cassens (9-for-19 passing, 94 yards; 16 carries, 70 yards) opened the scoring with a 4-yard run to give the Trojans a 6-0 with 10:39 left in the second quarter. The fleet-footed quarterback set up his score with a 48-yard run on the final play of the first quarter.

“(Cassens) was tough,” Cheatham said. “He was definitely a good player.”

OPRF responded with a touchdown on its next possession as McGill (17 carries, 102 yards) did the honors with a 48-yard TD run. Darrow’s extra point gave the Huskies a 7-6 with 8:57 remaining until halftime.

In a seesaw game, the Trojans regained the lead on Owen Geraghty’s 2-yard run into the end zone. Cassens connected with Geraghty on a 2-point conversion to make the score 14-7 at the 4:42 mark of the second quarter. Cassens’ 44-yard pass to Sam Barbato was the key play of the drive.

On a fourth-and-2 from the OPRF 48, Hoerster called for a fake punt. The gamble paid off as Ethan Reinhardt ran a 8-yard right sweep for a first down. McGill capped off the scoring drive with a 15-yard run. Darrow added a PAT to tie the score at 14-all entering halftime.

At the 6:48 mark of the third quarter, Bryant (12 carries, 106 yards) broke into the clear over the left side for his aforementioned 66-yard TD burst. Darrow was good again for the extra point and a 21-14 Huskies’ advantage.

“Naz had a great run,” Hoerster said. “He had an opportunity and made good on it. I’m happy for him; he deserved that.”

After Bryant’s touchdown, Cassens led the Trojans deep into OPRF territory on the ensuing drive. The Huskies’ Jalen Hubert came up with an interception off a tipped ball to quell the drive.

On the final possession for Downers Grove North with about two minutes left in the fourth quarter, OPRF defensive ends Jared Schainis and Izaiah Ruffin sacked Cassens on consecutive plays to secure the win. Jake Adams had 4.5 tackles, while Naahlyee Braynt, Ashford Hollis and Daemyen Middlebrooks chipped in three tackles apiece. Aidan Shea had a pair of tackles.

Offensively, OPRF amassed 276 yards of total offense and 11 first downs.

Heading into the final third of the season, OPRF is in a good position. One more win will give the Huskies playoff eligibility for a school-record seventh consecutive season. In order to attain that goal and beyond, Hoerster realizes his team needs to improve in some areas, particularly on offense. 

“We’re going to play some good teams coming up,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to play with more consistency on offense.” We have bursts where good things happen, but we’ve got to make sure we’re consistent.

“I’m proud of our special teams. Some good things happened all over the field, but we’ve got to be able to do four quarters of that. We can’t give up the big play. On offense, we’ve got to make sure we can get first downs when we need them.”

OPRF (4-2, 2-1 West Suburban Silver) hosts York on Friday, Oct. 5 in another intriguing conference matchup.

Led by first-year head coach Mike Fitzgerald, the Dukes feature a potent offense with two capable quarterbacks and a strong running game. A stern test for the Huskies is probable.

“York is doing some good things,” Hoerster said.  “Any time you face a team with a new coach and staff, it’s going to be a challenge to see what they’re about. We’re excited about it.

“But first we’ll let our kids enjoy this win, and then we’ll get back at it.”

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