How Harlem adjusted to Auburn's big receiver and found a way to win its football opener

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star

MACHESNEY PARK — Auburn would throw the ball high and deep to Athavion Coleman. Harlem would have him well covered. But Coleman kept coming down with the ball in the first half Saturday night, catching four passes, all of them for at least 26 yards.

“He’s a great athlete. He made some spectacular plays,” Harlem running back/defensive back DeAndre Young said.

“It’s timing,” said the 5-foot-10, 160-pound Coleman. “You’ve got to time your jumps every single time. If you time it right, you get the ball.”

Eventually, though, Harlem adjusted and the passes that were keeping Auburn close wound up breaking the Knights’ backs. Harlem, ranked No. 10 in Class 6A, turned four interceptions into a 21-12 season-opening NIC-10 football victory.

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“Their receivers are good receivers, but we weren’t using our technique the way we needed to use it,” Harlem coach Bob Moynihan said. “You see in the second half, he wasn’t catching those balls. We adjusted. Our corners played the right way and it turned out well.”

Coleman caught six passes for 144 yards, second in Auburn history to the 169 yards Davonte Stanfield had against Hononegah three years ago and 1 yard more than Elgia Leigh had against Belvidere in 1981. But Auburn held him to two catches for 23 yards in the second half after he had 121 yards receiving in the first two quarters.

“They started bailing out more and making sure I couldn’t invade their personal bubble, which is what I like to do to make the catch,” Coleman said. “They did a really good job of adjusting to me.”

Harlem's Austin Redmon hands off the ball to Deandre Young against Auburn on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, at Harlem High School in Machesney Park.

Adjusting is what Harlem seems to do best.

A few years ago, Harlem needed to run well to win, riding the legs of the league’s all-time leading rusher Brenton Shaw. Then they rode the arm of James Cooper Jr., who broke most of the league’s passing records and led the state by averaging 300 yards a game as a senior. Again, they usually had to outscore teams. But last year, they won their first playoff game in a decade, 64-39, lost the second 13-8 and also lost a low-scoring 14-6 game to NIC-10 champion Hononegah.

Saturday, the Huskies again showed they can be tough even when their offense isn’t clicking. Harlem, which had the league-s leading rusher last year, won despite running for just 104 yards on 36 carries and completing just 2 of its final 13 passes for 17 yards and an interception.

“Our defense worked hard for this,” said Young, who had two interceptions, including a 65-yard pick-6 one play after a 29-yard pass to Coleman to make it 21-12 with 45 seconds left in the first half. “We were there. We showed up. We did everything.

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“But there are so many ways we can win. We can win on the defensive end, the offensive end, special teams. Everything.”

“Our defense can step it up if we need to,” said linebacker Ben Larsen, who had an interception and two sacks. “We want to go hard on both sides of the ball, but if we have to, we will pick up where the other one is lacking. But we are trying to get to the point where we are firing on all cylinders.”

Harlem's Deandre Young celebrates a touchdown against Auburn on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, at Harlem High School in Machesney Park.

Moynihan said Harlem’s offensive line “didn’t show up for some reason.” That looked worrisome when Auburn scored on two of its first three drives to take leads of 6-0 and 12-7.

But Jahmani Muhammad returned Auburn’s first kickoff 79 yards to Harlem ahead 7-6. And after Auburn’s defense held Harlem on fourth down for the second time in the first quarter, defensive lineman Logan Lawson made Harlem’s first interception and returned it to the 10. Two plays later, Muhammad took a pitch 10 yards around the left end to put Harlem ahead for good, 14-12.

“I saw the quarterback roll out and was trailing him down in case he got out of the pocket and ran upfield,” Lawson said. “I was ready to hit him and make sure he didn’t get any yardage and he threw the ball across his body straight to me.”

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Harlem hounded Auburn quarterbacks Anthony Purifoy and Oshavian Dismuke all night, sacking them eight times.

“The pass rush helped a lot,” said Larsen, whom Moynihan called “the heartbeat” of the team. “The quarterback is under so much pressure. It’s easy jump balls for a lot of us.”

“They just hit a play or two,” Lawson said of Auburn taking the early lead. “But our defense came on strong and finished that game how we should have. This defense can be one of the best in the state. We show no mercy on anyone. We just want to hit and make sure people don’t want to come back.”