FOOTBALL

How Washington's defense kept rolling — and kept Morton from the football playoffs

Steve Stein
Journal Star

WASHINGTON — There's only one Mid-Illini Conference team Tim Brilley hasn't beaten in his seven years as Morton football coach.

It's Washington. The Panthers added to their mastery of the Potters on Friday night — and tossed some salt in the latest wound.

Washington beat Morton 7-0 in a defensive struggle at Babcook Field, eliminating the Potters (4-5, 3-4) from playoff contention and ending their season.

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After racing to the state semifinals last season, the furthest advance in team history, Morton failed to make the postseason for the first time since 2016.

Washington's Jase Harlan (44) celebrates a tackle against Morton in the second half Friday, Oct. 21, 2022 in Washington. The Panthers defeated the Potters 7-0.

The Potters were done in by three Mid-Illini losses by a combined total of 15 points: 14-7 to Pekin, 35-34 to Dunlap in overtime and 7-0 to Washington.

Friday's victory was the fifth in a row for playoff-bound Washington (6-3, 6-1), which finished all alone in second place in the Mid-Illini behind unbeaten and state-ranked Pekin (9-0, 7-0).

"That's the best we've played against Washington in seven years. We were a play away from beating them. I couldn't be prouder of those kids," an emotional Brilley said after embracing his players. "We had a great game plan on defense. We made some adjustments from what Washington did to us in past years. They didn't have to punt in some games against us."

It was a punt in the fourth quarter Friday that led to the game's lone touchdown in the only time either team reached the red zone.

Morton punter Sam Short leaped to snare a high snap and got off only a 16-yard punt that went out of bounds despite not being pressured, giving Washington the ball on the Morton 46 with 8:28 left in the game.

Short had made a spectacular play on a punt in the first quarter that could have become a game-saver for the Potters. A high snap went over his head. He gathered the ball in the end zone and got off a 40-yard punt an instant before being leveled.

Morton quarterback Jude Hart (7) hugs his teammates after their 7-0 loss to Washington on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022 in Washington.

The Panthers put together their best drive of the night after Short's 16-yard punt, moving 46 yards in 12 plays and scoring on a 4-yard run by Kainon McQueary with 1:33 to go.

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An interception by Washington's Brayson Barth on Morton's first play after the kickoff effectively ended the game.

Washington coach Darrell Crouch was facing an interesting decision as his team was driving for the winning touchdown.

Mitch Coughlon, the Panthers' regular placekicker, was busy Friday night playing for the Washington boys soccer team in the Class 2A Metamora Regional championship game against Morton. His replacement Garrett Cox, who had kicked extra points earlier this season but did not have a field goal attempt, could have been entrusted with kicking a game-winning field goal.

"I have confidence in Garrett, but you hate to put all that pressure on a kid. Kicking isn't his job," Crouch said.

Cox said he was ready, willing and able if called upon to kick a field goal.

"But I knew we were going to score a touchdown," he said. "Kainon was going to do it. He's hard to stop."

After McQueary's touchdown, Cox kicked the extra point.

Washington's Thomas Diederich chases Morton running back Carl Whitaker in the second half Friday, Oct. 21, 2022 in Washington. The Panthers defeated the Potters 7-0.

Cox and Carter Prina are ends in Washington's stingy defense, which has not allowed a touchdown in the Panthers' last five games and posted three shutouts during that stretch.

Each had a reason for the defense's late-season surge.

"Jace Harlan does a great job at middle linebacker for us," Cox said. "We open things up for him on the line and he fills the gaps. And our DB's (defensive backs) are lockdown."

"Coach Stevens (defensive coordinator Todd Stevens) and coach Crouch get us ready to play each game," Prina said.

Cox and Prina were assigned Friday to keep an eye on Morton quarterback Jude Hart, and they did their job. Hart had six carries for a minus-10 yards. He was 3-for-9 passing for just 17 yards.

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Morton running backs Carl Whitaker (nine carries, 25 yards) and Brett Michel (eight carries, 28 yards) also were held in check.

The Washington offensive line waits for a play call from the sideline during their varsity football game against Morton in the second half Friday, Oct. 21, 2022 in Washington. The Panthers defeated the Potters 7-0.

Washington outgained Morton 226-60. The Panthers' ball-control offense kept Morton's offense off the field most of the night, running 63 plays to the Potters' 32 and dominating time of possession 32:10 to 15:44.

McQueary had to work hard for his 88 yards on 23 carries. Washington quarterback Jake Stewart rushed 16 times for 65 yards and he was 9-for-15 through the air for 32 yards.

"They had No. 2 (Whitaker) as a spy on Kainon, so Jake ran the ball more than he usually does," Crouch said.

Washington returned just two starters from last year's team and after a 1-3 start this season against tough competition, continuing the Panthers' streak of making the playoffs every year since 2007 seemed like a tall task.

"We could have folded after going 1-3, but we didn't," Crouch said. "We didn't want to wait until next year to be a good team. Now we'll see (Saturday) who we play in the first round of the playoffs. That's fun. That's a great thing about high school football."

Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or stevestein21@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.