'Can't count us out': How Pekin football made history with a thrilling playoff finish
NORMAL — The Pekin football team taught a master class Friday on how to respond to adversity.
After trailing Normal Community the entire night — including by 14 after the first quarter and 13 midway through the third quarter — the Dragons rallied for a thrilling 32-31 victory over the Ironmen in a Class 7A second-round playoff game.
Tanner Sprecher scored on a 1-yard run with 30 seconds left to tie the game at 31-31 and Mylee Hansen boomed a PAT through the uprights to give Pekin (11-0) its first lead of the game and the victory.
History was made on a windy, warm November night in front of an overflow crowd at Dick Tharp Field that included thousands of Pekin fans. Before Friday, no Pekin football team had ever won 11 games in a season.
This year's team now has that distinction.
"This team is resilient. It doesn't quit. It plays all four quarters," said an emotional Pekin coach Doug Nutter, still dripping wet after being drenched with water and Gatorade in the Dragons' post-game celebration, which included a storming of the field by Pekin's Fire Pit student section.
"We never feel we're out of a game," Sprecher said. "You can't count us out."
So what's next for the No. 3 seed Dragons? A quarterfinal game this coming weekend at home at Memorial Stadium against either No. 11 seed Lake Zurich (9-1) or No. 6 seed Wheaton North (9-1). Lake Zurich and Wheaton North will play in a second-round playoff game at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Pekin will be home for the quarterfinals because it has a better playoff seed than either of its potential opponents.
Dragons star Kanye Tyler said Friday's game was a wakeup call and dose of reality for the team.
"We haven't faced much adversity this season, but we showed (Friday) we know we can respond to it, and why we all love football so much," he said.
"But we also learned we have to come out strong at the start of a game and we can't underestimate our opponent. This game was a learning experience. We're going to work on that."
Pekin quarterback Scotty Jordan epitomized the Dragons' never-say-die attitude Friday. He was intercepted twice, including a pick-six for a touchdown by Aiden Boundy on the final play of the first quarter that gave Normal Community (7-4) a 14-0 lead.
But Jordan ended up completing 20 of 32 passes for 283 yards and a touchdown, and he also scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak with 6 seconds left in the first half.
Bo Benassi caught the touchdown pass, a 65-yarder early in the second quarter when Jordan found him wide open in the middle of the field. Benassi had quite a night, grabbing 11 passes for 194 yards. Tyler had four catches for 73 yards and he scored on a 10-yard run.
"I was mad at myself on those interceptions. But I didn't allow myself to be mad for long," Jordan said.
Sprecher was confident his quarterback would bounce back from the interceptions.
"Scotty made the plays when we needed them," he said. "We wouldn't be half the team we are without him."
Missed tackles hurt Pekin. So did a blocked extra point, two missed two-point conversions and costly penalties, including back-to-back offsides calls that gave Normal Community a first down while the Ironmen were setting up for a field goal try in the third quarter.
But the Dragons didn't let that stop them.
Pekin's offense rolled up 522 total yards and 30 first downs and ran 77 plays to Normal Community's 43.
Sprecher carried the ball 23 times for 135 yards and he scored two touchdowns. His first TD was a 20-yard run with 3:58 left in the third quarter that cut the Ironmen's lead to 31-25. Tyler had 11 carries for 66 yards.
Defense does it
Pekin's defense came through when it was needed the most.
The defense stood tall after the two straight offsides calls, allowing only a 31-yard field goal by Ryan Millmore with 7:45 left in the third quarter that gave Normal Community a 31-18 lead. The Ironmen never scored again.
The defense made two huge stops late in the game, including a red zone stand early in the fourth quarter that made Normal Community pay for being greedy.
A chip shot field goal at that point would have given the Ironmen a 34-25 lead and forced Pekin to score twice to win. Instead, the Dragons gave themselves new life by stopping Normal Community on the Pekin 2.
Another stop by the Pekin defense late in the fourth quarter forced Millmore, an outstanding punter and placekicker, to punt into the gusting wind. He shanked a 14-yard punt out of bounds, giving Pekin the ball on the Ironmen 29 with 2:25 to go in the game. Six plays later, Sprecher found the end zone.
Normal Community's final play was a crazy combination of passes and laterals that ended up way behind the line of scrimmage and set off a wild celebration on the field and in the packed Pekin stands.
The No. 19 seed Ironmen were a better team than their record shows. They came into the game with a six-game winning streak after a 1-3 start.
Tommy Davis was a thorn in Pekin's side all night. He ran for three touchdowns on runs of 14, 7 and 60 yards. He rushed for 116 yards on 13 carries and he caught three passes for 41 yards.
Quarterback Kyle Beaty was 10-for-19 passing for 158 yards. He was sacked by Pekin's Brayden Beckham and Jace Hackman, who gave himself a nice birthday present.
Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.