KANKAKEE — The last time Kankakee’s football team won a playoff game, current Kays quarterback Tyjuane Stewart was just beginning his educational path as a kindergartner. Head coach Derek Hart was in high school himself.
Stewart, now the junior signal-caller and Hart, the Kays’ freshman head coach, along with the bruising running of Mattias Clark and a just-as-bruising defensive effort led the Kays to their first playoff victory since 2008 on Saturday, a 30-23 home victory against Peoria Notre Dame.
The Kays improved to 9-1 on the season and advanced to the second round of the IHSA Class 5A playoffs and ended the Irish’s season at 6-4 in the process.
“In practice, we’ve been putting in the extra work and taking it more seriously because it’s playoff time,” linebacker Patrick Allen said. “Next week, we’ve got to turn it up a notch.”
Allen and the Kays went to work early on the defensive end, forcing a pair of first-quarter punts and an Allen fumble recovery, with their physicality setting the tone early.
Hart said that he and his team caught wind of some chatter down in Peoria that lingered into their minds Saturday afternoon.
“Their coach said something this week about how they’re built for this cold weather and we’re not,” Hart said. “That kind of gave our kids that chip on their shoulder coming in.
“Every time we step on that field, we’re going to be the most physical team.”
That physicality translated to the offensive side as well when Mattias Clark bullied his way into the endzone from 27 yards out to put the Kays ahead 6-0 in the closing seconds of the first quarter.
The Irish responded quickly when Christopher Dillon broke free for a 32-yard touchdown on the ensuing drive, taking a 7-6 lead.
Despite big plays, such as Clark’s touchdown, a 45-yard completion from Stewart to Daquan Burns and a fourth-and-22 Hail Mary that Stewart launched into triple coverage and fell into the hands of a laying-down Chico Spivery, untimely penalties and a trio of bad shotgun snaps netted the Kays just the one score and a 7-6 halftime deficit.
“We made some big plays, big catches, big throws, big runs, but we only had six points on the board,” Hart said. “We kept shooting ourselves in the foot and if we cleaned up the snaps, cleaned up the penalties, we knew we’d be alright.”
And cleaning up is exactly what the Kays did at halftime. Freshman center Steven Young was nearly perfect with his snaps in the second half and the Kays were only flagged once over the final two quarters.
That resulted in a monumental momentum shift. Clark hit paydirt for the second time from 17 yards out on the first drive of the third, and after the defense forced an Irish three-and-out, Stewart broke loose for a 31-yard touchdown scamper to make it an 18-7 game.
Stewart said Clark’s bruising style forced the Irish to shift their attention his way, which freed up the space for Stewart to make plays.
“It sets the way,” Stewart said of Clark’s abilities. “He draws the defense over to him and opens the running lanes for me.”
That was evident over the rest of the game, as Stewart found the endzone twice more in the fourth quarter. After Jeff Shields punched one in from a yard out to pull the Irish to within three, Stewart scored from two yards out a minute into the fourth
On the ensuing Irish drive, Phil Birdsong recovered an Irish fumble to set the Kays up at their own 30-yard line. After Clark broke free for a 12-yard run to open the drive, Stewart essentially put the game on ice with a 58-yard score to give the Kays a 30-15 lead.
Stewart had plenty of time to think on his final score, as he ran the entire way virtually untouched. And while he was running, there was only one thing on his mind.
“I was just thinking to run hard,” Stewart said. “We had to score to put it away.”
The Irish were able to score again to cut their deficit to 30-23, but never got the ball back again, as the Kays successfully ran out the final 5:57 on the clock to secure the win.
While Stewart and Clark led the way offensively, Hart said the two fumbles the Kays caused and recovered were the difference Saturday.
“In the playoffs, turnovers are everything,” Hart said. “They flip the momentum and the defense came up big for us.”
Stewart didn’t finish far behind Clark’s game-high 164 yards, as the junior quarterback piled up 155 yards to go along with his three scores. He also went 6-for-15 passing for 111 yards. Spivery had three of those receptions for 65 yards.
The Kays will head south for a lengthy road trip to Mascoutah at 5 p.m. Saturday. The Indains advanced after upsetting Carbondale 40-28 Saturday.