PEOTONE — It seems as though a lifetime of events has occurred since the last time Manteno and Peotone met for the football rendition of the annual Rumble on Route 50 rivalry. But through a pandemic and an offseason that was extended about six months, the Blue Devils and coach Tolly Tsiamas still had their 2019 loss in their minds when they took to their home field Thursday night for what turned out to be a 28-0 victory against the Panthers.
“A lot of coaches like to talk about not looking in the past, but we do,” Tsiamas said of the Blue Devils’ 14-7 2019 loss in Manteno. “We used it to try [to] get better and to build up, quite frankly, a little bit of anger.”
That anger turned to elation as the game wore on and led to Tsiamas being mobbed by his players after the game when he greeted them with repossession of the Rumble on Route 50 Helmet in a moment that perfectly encapsulated how Tsiamas feels about his group that has stuck together through the wildness of the world in the past year to open the season 3-0.
“It’s a lot of fun showing up to work every day, coming to school and practice,” Tsiamas said. “Everything going on the past year with COVID and remote learning ... I love these kids, and what they’ve done has reinvigorated me.
“They’ve shown everyone why sports are so important, and I’m so proud of our 25 kids.”
Friday’s win seemed like a breeze when looking at the final score, but the Panthers showed from the jump they were a tougher opponent than their winless, now 0-3 record indicates. They ran a smashmouth version of their spread offense, milking the clock for nearly eight minutes on 13 plays before Caleb Borkenhagen’s first of four interceptions on the night was picked by Mike Kraft.
The Blue Devils returned the physical favor with a bone-crushing drive of their own that went for 13 plays and 60 yards, capped off by a 4-yard touchdown by TJ Chenoweth. Chenoweth had 115 yards on 18 carries as part of a Peotone rushing attack that totaled 220 yards and saw four different players run for a touchdown.
“It’s awesome; we have backs on backs,” Chenoweth said. “We can just switch everyone out, everyone knows where to go, and it’s just awesome to have that compatibility to where we can switch everyone out but still compete and execute.”
The Panthers again threatened before coming up empty on their next drive, turning it over on downs at the Peotone 29-yard line after a 12-play, 50-yard drive stalled out.
It was just a 6-0 game at the half, thanks in large part to the Panthers holding the ball for about 15 minutes in the first half and keeping up with the tenacious tone of the game. After a Ryan Moe touchdown opened the third quarter, the Panthers stalled out at the Peotone 18-yard line after an 11-play, 54-yard drive came away empty.
Ben Balmer put a stamp on his dazzling all-around game with a 1-yard score early in the fourth before Derek Knauer’s 4-yard touchdown later in the quarter gave the game its final score.
The frustration of the long-but-scoreless drives came out in the Panthers down the stretch, as their last three drives all ended via interceptions by Balmer, Tyler Hendricker and Hunter Jellema, who also had a 62-yard pick-six called back in the third.
Panthers coach RJ Haines said he’s seen spurts of potential from an offense that’s been held scoreless against vaunted Illinois Central Eight defenses in Coal City and Peotone the past two weeks but not enough on a consistent basis to merit the traditional attention that is paid to a Manteno offense.
“We’re struggling on offense, and we feel at times we’re really close, but we’re just not playing consistent enough; we’re just not playing clean enough,” Haines said. “Against a good team and a well-coached team like Peotone is you can’t shoot yourself in the foot with tackles for losses, penalties and turnovers.”
Despite Manteno’s recent offensive woes, with a three-year starter such as Borkenhagen running the show, Tsiamas knew the Panthers’ offense would provide a challenge, a challenge his defense stood up to as they pitched their second shutout through the first three games of the season.
“To shutout a team like that, one of the top offenses in the area, I’m so proud to be a Blue Devil and represent this school and these kids.”
Chenoweth’s 118 yards were followed by Balmer’s 85 yards. Balmer and Hendricker each had sacks, as did Dawson Piper. Balmer’s 10 tackles were a team-high.
Borkenhagen was 15 for 25 for 149 yards with 29 rushing yards on 10 carries. Cole Jackson had five catches for 60 yards. Logan Worobey ran for 37 yards on eight carries and caught three passes for 41 yards.
The Blue Devils will look to move to 4-0 when they visit Lisle at 6 p.m. Thursday. The Panthers host Streator at 6 p.m. Friday.