Harlem crushes East on 4th down, wins 1st NIC-10 football title since 1997
ROCKFORD — Harlem has the three leading receivers in the NIC-10. Charles Weber IV is not one of them. Weber had 24 yards receiving all year.
But when Harlem called a fake punt on fourth-and-15 on its own 36, punter/quarterback James Cooper Jr. threw to Weber for a 49-yard gain. That may have ended any chance East had of making the NIC-10 title game competitive Friday as Harlem rolled to a 48-8 victory.
“I just had to step up and make a play for my team,” Weber said. “James threw it and as soon as I turned my head it was there.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but ever since I’ve started playing football I’ve been in the spotlight — it might not have been varsity level but it was my level. I wanted to do my best when my number was called.”
Harlem (6-0) won its third conference title in its 58 seasons in the NIC-10 by crushing the E-Rabs (4-2) on fourth down. Harlem led 27-0 at halftime, but it wasn’t all that far away from being 0-0. Maybe just three plays away.
Harlem scored its first touchdown after Cooper, rolling to his left, threw a perfect 21-yard pass on fourth-and-6 to Dominic McCarren. Weber’s catch led to Harlem’s second score. Cooper threw 19 yards to Dezzion Jordan on fourth-and-5 and 7 yards to McCarren on fourth-and-1 on Harlem’s third TD drive.
Harlem added another TD on a 20-yard pass to McCarren to lead 27-0 at halftime after an interception by Reid Foster, but East would not have been passing in the final minute of the first half if it didn’t already trail 21-0. And the E-Rabs only trailed big because Harlem was 4-for-4 on fourth down.
Harlem finished 5-for-5 on fourth down with Cooper throwing a 23-yard TD on fourth-and-12 for the Huskies’ final score.
“Shout out to James; he can convert,” Weber said.
“There was nothing we could do about that,” East coach Gary Griffin said. “They made great plays. We just didn’t stop them.”
Cooper, the NIC-10’s all-time passing leader, finished 16-for-30 for 253 yards and five touchdowns. He had 22 touchdowns, either running or passing, in Harlem’s last four games.
East’s defense held Harlem to 24 yards rushing on 13 carries in the first half and often had good coverage on the Huskie receivers, but Jordan (seven catches for 130 yards and two TDs) and McCarren (four catches for 54 yards and two TDs) kept coming down with the ball.
“We have been doing that all year,” Harlem coach Bob Moynihan said. “We have some of the best receivers in the state.”
“They’ve been doing that all year,” he said. “They don’t ever disappoint.”
CJ Berry, the NIC-10’s leading rusher, had 94 yards and a late 39-yard TD, but East had only two first downs before Harlem took a 41-0 lead and got a running clock late in the third quarter.
Harlem’s first title since 1997 comes with a bit of an asterisk. The Huskies, ranked No. 5 in Class 7A, were supposed to play Boylan for the right to advance to the league title game last week but the Titans (3-0) had a case of COVID-19 and couldn’t play the last two weeks.
The Huskies don’t see any asterisks, though.
“We would have won,” Cooper said. “I don’t mean to sound cocky, but we would have won.
“It bothers me. I wanted to beat them. They’ll say what they have to say, but we won conference. That’s the end of that.”
“We know what could have been,” McCarren said, “but at the end of the day, a championship is a championship.”