KANKAKEE — A week ago, Tony Phillips wasn’t even on the Bishop McNamara varsity football roster. But with injuries plaguing an already-thin Fighting Irish roster ahead of Friday’s home opener against Riverside-Brookfield, the freshman phenom was given the chance to shine.
Phillips took full advantage as the lead back in an Irish gameplan focused on dominating on the ground with power formations, displaying speed, patience and shiftiness as he tallied 23 carries for 214 yards and three touchdowns to lead McNamara to a 34-12 victory over the Bulldogs at Rich Zinanni Stadium.
With all-state threat Manny Harris out due to injury and fellow senior star Caleb Smith limited with an injury of his own, Phillips learned after the Irish fell to Wheaton Academy last week it was his time to shine. He said he entered the game plenty nervous but that those jitters didn’t take long to die down.
“They were on 10 in that first quarter,” Phillips said. “[They went to zero] after that first touchdown.”
Phillips’ first varsity score came on the second Irish play of the game. After the McNamara defense forced a quick three-and-out and Phillips took a carry for seven yards, his second attempt went for paydirt from 39 yards after a swift cut upfield and motor that kept accelerating as he crossed the goal line.
Several of his runs were broken loose thanks to impact blocks from the offensive line as well as power backs Mel Hay and Jaydon Wright, the latter of which is also a freshman who was thrusted into a larger role Friday.
“As freshmen coming up I knew they had butterflies but I told them, “hey, we need you in the backfield with Manny out,’” senior linebacker and running back Caleb Smith said. “’Every time you get the ball, run hard, and when you see daylight, take it for touchdown.’”
Phillips totaled three touchdowns on the day while Smith had six carries for 64 yards and two scores. Irish coach Rich Zinanni said the gameplan was simplified this week to allow one of the youngest teams in 46 seasons to highlight their strong suits and use them to their advantage.
“We had a lot of trouble last week blocking with a very young offensive line,” Zinanni said. “We just want to do what we do right and simplify things and it worked out really well.”
Zinanni also had high praise for Phillips, who also scored touchdowns of 56 and 17 yards.
“When we brought him up he was hitting people and is a tough kid —he’s not real big but he’s got the right stuff,” Zinanni said. “Manny couldn’t play and Caleb’s been hurt, our two best tailbacks, and he was next and did a great job.”
Smith’s touchdown runs came from nine and 48 yards out and he had two sacks on the defensive end. Along with Hay, Smith created pressure in the face of Bulldogs quarterback and Notre Dame baseball commit Owen Murphy. The Irish also generated pressure from the edge with twin brothers and defensive ends Matthew and Andrew Arseneau.
But silence fell upon the crowd and field in the first half when Andrew suffered a leg injury in the first half when he and Smith were putting pressure on Murphy out of the pocket. The three bodies became tangled and left Andrew on the ground with a severe injury that took him away from the game in an ambulance.
“It’s really hard and just a crazy year … those things are just devastating,” Zinanni said. “It’s too bad for Andrew, he’s a really good baseball player too and our heart goes out to him.”
Smith said that when they lost one of their senior leaders they knew the rest of the game had to be dedicated to their fallen soldier.
“With my brother Andrew out, that hurt my soul and I know it hurt Matthew’s soul,” Smith said. “But you saw the scoreboard, we had to get that win for Andrew.”
The Irish defense was stellar for most of the night, holding the Bulldogs to just 194 total yards. The performance came without defensive coordinator Kurt Belisle, who will rejoin the team next week, as defensive backs coach Brent Dolliger filled in for Belisle.
“For [Dolliger] to do that is a big leap,” Smith said. “I’m glad he stepped up to be that person, and coach Belisle, we got that win for you.”
The Irish will return home next Saturday when they host Chicago Christian at 3 p.m.