Prep Football: Blue Thunder fights back, outlasts East

Belvidere North quarterback Justin Ellingson loads up to throw a pass against Rockford East. Ellingson threw for 111 yards and a touchdown to go along with two rushing touchdowns in the win. (Photo by Matt Nestor)

By Matt Nestor
Prep Sports Reporter

The Rockford East E-Rabs jumped out to a quick lead against the Belivdere North Blue Thunder in their NIC-10 matchup Friday, Sept. 30.

But Austin Smaha would not let his team lose. The Belvidere North senior ran for 209 yards and scored five touchdowns, including the game-tying touchdown and 2-point conversion to send the game to overtime, where the Blue Thunder (3-3) prevailed 59-58.

All I can remember is going back to freshman year,” Smaha said after the game. “I think it was against East, too. It was tied 59-59, but there is no overtime in freshman ball. Other than that, I can’t think of anything that exciting.”

The first half resembled a basketball game, with both teams racing up and down the field scoring points. E-Rabs quarterback Andrew Lantz scored two touchdowns and running back Wes Short scored one of his own as East (1-5) built a 21-7 lead in the first quarter.

But Smaha came back with touchdown runs of 53 yards and 32 yards, as well as a 75-yard kickoff return in the second quarter to help his team keep pace, leading to a 44-38 halftime score.

Austin Smaha looks to get to the corner against Rockford East. The Belvidere North senior ran for 209 yards and three touchdowns, as well as running two kickoffs back for touchdowns in a 59-58 overtime win. (Photo by Matt Nestor)

That was crazy,” North Coach Ryan Zarembski said. “Selfishly, I’m a defensive coach, so that first half really hurt my feelings. I was at a loss. Coach Gangler came down and he had a few ideas. I figured we gave up 44 in the first half, let’s try some different stuff. We were able to slow them down a little bit.”

After an offensive explosion in the first half, the game turned into a defensive struggle in the third quarter. Neither team scored in the quarter and could barely even muster a first down.

But Short struck again for East in the fourth quarter, scoring on a 42-yard run, his third touchdown of the game, to extend their lead to 14 points. All total, Short ran for a game-high 278 yards.

When all hope seemed lost for Belvidere North, however, Smaha was there to bail them out again. He returned the ensuing kickoff 87 yards for his second kick return touchdown of the game, before scoring the tying points later in the quarter with just over a minute left.

We still got Austin, and he’s going to make you look good,” Zarembski said. “You can’t put the ball in his hands. I would never kick to him, but I’m glad that they did.”

East did have a shot to win in regulation, missing a 26-yard field goal at the end of the fourth quarter. They also scored first on a Davonte Williams touchdown in overtime, before missing the extra point.

Quarterback Justin Ellingson scored on a 3-yard run for North in overtime, his second rushing touchdown of the game, with the extra point providing the winning margin.

It was one of those games where the last team with the ball was going to get a chance to win,” Zarembski said. “I feel bad for (East) because they gave a great effort, but we’re lucky to escape out of here and still have our playoff hopes alive.”

In other NIC-10 action:

• Machesney Park Harlem (5-1) firmly established themselves in second place, getting 183 yards from running back Kevin Witcik and three touchdown passes from Cody DiGiovanni as the Huskies topped Rockton Hononegah (4-2) by a final of 41-7.

• Rockford Jefferson (2-4) held Rockford Boylan Catholic to their second-lowest point total of the season. But the Titans (6-0) still had no trouble with the J-Hawks, disposing of them by a score of 38-8. Tyreis Thomas had his best game of the year, getting 166 yards and two scores. Josh Woodford racked up 163 rushing yards for Jefferson.

• The Rockford Guilford Vikings (4-2) inched themselves closer to a playoff berth, getting a strong defensive effort on their way to a 34-0 shutout against Rockford Auburn (0-6). Guilford used several Auburn fumbles to help preserve a victory.

• Belvidere (3-3) used offense, defense and special teams to score points against Freeport (2-4), shutting out the Pretzels 55-0. Troy Vandenbroek threw for two touchdowns and ran another in to lead the way for the Bucs.

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