Just as everyone suspected, Friday’s mammoth matchup between Bishop McNamara and Coal City came down to who would make the big play at the end of the game.
And on Friday, it was Coalers running back Daniel Jezik who stood tall.
With three minutes remaining in the game and the Coalers deep in their own territory on a third and one with a touchdown lead, Jezik took a draw and evaded the Irish defense for an 84-yard scoring scamper that put the ice on a 34-20 Coalers home victory.
“We knew it was 27-20, a one possession game and that game wasn’t over,” Jezik said. "Our offensive line was great, I couldn’t have asked for better.
“Our wide receivers had those great fakes that drew out their linebackers and once I got (the ball), it was just off to the races.”
The Coalers improved to 2-0 on the season behind Jezik’s 297 rushing yards, while the Irish fell to 1-1.
It was the Irish who drew first blood. After a Caleb Smith strip sack and on their second play from scrimmage, Owen Jackson took a reverse, pulled up and fired to find an open Max O’Connor for a 45-yard touchdown that gave McNamara an early 7-0 lead and the momentum.
“The execution was there and we did well," Irish coach Rich Zinanni said of the opening minutes. "We worked on that play this week and it’s nice when you work on something like that and it actually works."
But the Coalers responded immediately and drove down the field with ease on the ensuing drive, one that was capped off by Jezik’s first touchdown of the game from 11 yards out.
By the time he found paydirt midway through the first quarter, the senior running back and state champion wrestler had already eclipsed the 60 yard mark behind a beefy Coaler offensive line.
Coalers coach Dan Hutchings said it was that line, paired with Jezik's talents, made for a great ground game.
"Our offensive line played well and our other backs blocked well tonight," Hutchings said. "And Daniel's a kid who just won't go down with his wrestling background."
The Coalers' defense began to make plays as well. Payton Hutchings was able to find Kyle Burch for his first of two passing touchdowns to make it a 14-7 game and then an interception in the endzone from Griffin Johnson set up a Coaler drive that ended in a four-yard Asa Cooper touchdown to put the Coalers ahead by 14.
But the Irish and quarterback Tyler Hiller responded nicely. Hiller was able to find holes in the Coaler defense for chunk plays of 15 and 17 yards before Jackson scored the more traditional way from his running back position to make it 21-13.
After three consecutive Irish kickoffs went out of bounds, the Coalers took over in Irish territory with just over a minute left and capitalized, as Payton Hutchings hit Austin Pullara for a 20-yard touchdown and 27-13 halftime lead.
Both defenses made sound adjustments at the break, but the Irish finally broke open in the third on a 25-yard touchdown from Hiller to Manny Harris with 3:51 left in the third.
But that 27-20 score was as close as the Irish would get. The Coalers' secondary, their most inexperienced unit, were stout in their coverage and didn't give Hiller any open receivers, forcing seven incompletions in Hiller's last eight passing attempts.
"I'm really proud," Cooper, one of those defensive backs, said. "(The secondary) got their butts chewed out at halftime, but we stepped up."
After a 13 minute scoreless stretch, the Coalers were faced with a third-and-short from their own 16 when Jezik's gamebreaking speed sealed the deal for the Coalers.
"We knew they started stacking the box at the line of scrimmage, taking away our sweep, but we knew Daniel was gonna pop one and go off," Dan Hutchings said. "Credit our offensive line for making a small crease and Daniel took off."
Friday's matchup lived up the billing it was hyped with, and after the game, each side spoke of the respect they have for the other and the fact they could see each other again in November.
"They have an amazing program and did a heck of a job, their players and their coaches," Jezik said. "That playoff standing is gonna come down tot his game and it was big."
"It was a good game, great atmosphere with great kids and great coaches over there," Zinanni said. "That's what football is supposed to be about.
"We're not discouraged by (the loss), we could see them again in the playoffs and that would be awesome."
Jezik's 297 yards came on 32 carries. Cooper added 41 yards and his score, along with a pair of tackles for loss. Payton Hutchings wennt 4-for-9 for 87 yards and two touchdowns. Burch had three catches for 57 yards and his score, while Pullara added an interception and tackle for loss to his touchdown.
Hiller went 14-for-28 for 215 yards, a touchdown and two picks. Jackson ran for 77 yards and his touchdown and had four catches for 43 yards. Harris had 38 rushing yards and 46 receiving yards with his score. O'Connor had 66 receiving yards.
The Coalers will travel to Herscher Friday for their first Illinois Central Eight Conference game at 7 p.m. The Irish will travel to Riverside-Brookfield at the same time Friday.