ARCOLA — The Illinois High School Association Class 1A football first-round playoff game was about even in total yardage between Arcola and Brown County, but it was the Hornets' big plays and turnovers that made the difference Saturday at Thomas-Bradford Field. Brown County scored 29 unanswered points during a 17-minute, 22-second stretch from late in the first to midway through the third to take a 29-7 advantage. Arcola battled back to within eight, 29-21, with seven minutes left when the Purple Riders fumbled and Brown County recovered. Arcola was as close as seven points, 35-28, but Brown County sealed the 42-28 win with a six-play, 51-yard drive that was capped by a 38-yard run by the Hornets' all-time career touchdown leader, Devin Tynan.
"I just told our kids (at halftime when Arcola trailed 21-7) that we have been in this position before and we fought our way back," said Arcola coach Nick Lindsey. "I knew our kids are not going to quit. It is just not how they are built. They did a great job of fighting back and never quitting. We just turned the ball over a couple of times and we had not done that all year, and that is what ends up getting you in the playoffs."
Brown County improved to 8-2 and will play host to Tuscola, a 56-0 winner over Chester. Arcola finished at 7-3.
Arcola outgained Brown County 395-380, but besides the lost fumble, Brown County's Darian Drake intercepted an Arcola pass in his own end zone late in the third quarter with the Hornets ahead 29-14.
"We have got a few turnovers over the season, but today was a big day for us," said Brown County coach Tom Little. "We had quite a few more big plays, and the defense was flying around just having fun. I think when we had the lead, it allowed them to play a little more aggressive, and they made some really big plays."
Arcola scored the game's first points on its second possession. The Purple Riders marched 80 yards in six plays, with the big play being a 61-yard run by Conner Strader, who finished with 16 carries for 124 yards to lead the Arcola rushing attack. On third down, Strader rifled a ball over the middle to Martin Rund for a 10-yard touchdown. Mario Cortez booted the extra point for a 7-0 Purple Rider lead.
However, on the ensuing kickoff, Drake returned it 33 yards and then fumbled. The pigskin was scooped up by Gavin Lancaster, who sprinted the remaining 50 yards for the touchdown. Joe Hendricker tacked on the extra point and the game was tied for what would be the only time.
The Purple Rider defense forced Brown County to a fourth-and-10 on its own 42 when Hendricker, the punter, found 6-3 tight end Tanner Sussenbach for a 58-yard scoring strike. Hendricker made the point after, and Brown County was ahead to stay, 14-7 early in the second period.
"We have our special teams coordinator Alex Ebbing, and he does a great job," said Little. "We just let him do his thing. He is able to look at it, break it down and figure it out. I am not 100 percent sure on what he saw, but he called it at the right time"
The next time the Hornets got the ball, they put together the longest drive of the game, an 11-play, 82-yarder with three first downs on third-down situations. Sussenbach caught a 12-yard touchdown pass near the sideline, and the point after ended the first half scoring, with Brown County leading 21-7.
"We had prepped for that a lot this week," said Lindsey of the fake punt. "We had a kid in the right position, but Sussenbach was just better. He made the play. He is a tough matchup. Their quarterback does a great job. They beat us. They outcoached us and they outplayed us. Things feel their way and didn't go ours. It was as simple as that. You look at a situation like the fumble (on the kick return by Brown County) — we marched down and scored and had some momentum, and then they fumble and scoop it up and run for a touchdown."
Brown County received the second half kickoff and marched 80 yards in nine plays with two big runs by Tynan, the first occurring on a 10-yard run on a third-down situation and the second on a 52-yard run. Drake scored on from one yard out. Hendricker hit Tynan for the two-point conversion and a 22-point lead.
"I really like their quarterback (Strader) and I knew if we didn't get up by at least three scores, he is going to have a good chance of coming back," said Little. "He is a good quarterback and a great runner. I think he handled himself very well and made some great passes, and their receivers made some great catches on them. They are a really good passing team and they were able to throw it, but the fact that they were not able to run it all the time (after the Hornets led by 22) kind of made a difference."
Arcola got its offense rolling through the air as they went 55 yards in six plays when Strader, who was 20-of-32 for 224 yards and four touchdowns, threw a 12-yard touchdown to Sam Crane, who faked out a would-be defender at the 10 and sprinted and then dove into the end zone. Mario Cortez made the extra point.
It was the Strader-to-Crane connection that worked for another score on the Purple Riders' first possession after the interception. This time it was for five yards to end a nine-play, 67-yard drive. Cortez made the extra point and Arcola was within eight.
Tynan, who finished with 21 carries for 178 yards to lead the Hornets' ground game, scored on an eight-yard run. The extra point was missed, leaving Arcola within 14 with 4:23 left in the game.
Tynan and Drake do a nice job of mixing it up and keeping us off-balanced — and then you always have to account for their tight end (Sussenbach)," said Lindsey. "He is their difference maker."
Arcola loses six seniors, who became the first class to make the playoffs all four years since the 1993 team. The six are Strader, Martin Rund, Cortez, Crane, Mason Gentry and Quinten Helmuth.
"Our seniors have meant the world to me," said Lindsey. "I know there is only six of them, but they are so special. They went through a coaching change right before their senior year. The amount of work they put in and the leadership they provided has been great. They are a great group of kids and I will miss them a lot, and I told them after the game that I am forever indebted to them just for what they have done for me and for the program. It is tough as a senior when you have such a load of sophomores that you have to rely on. I thought they did a great job of taking them under their wing and making them better."