CHAMPAIGN | Big plays were huge in bringing Mount Carmel an 11th state football championship Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
The Caravan’s 28-14 victory over Glenbard North in the Class 8A championship game was built on a quartet of long-yardage plays, two by Draco Smith and two by Justin Sanchez.
The Big Four critical to the outcome: a 78-yard touchdown run by Smith; a 63-yard interception return by Justin Sanchez that set up Mount Carmel’s third touchdown; Smith’s 25-yard scoring dance down the right sideline in the fourth quarter; and Sanchez’s 15-yard pick-off that stopped the Panthers’ last good chance to score inside the Caravan 20.
That and more – as in a 35-yard touchdown run by Don Butkus that started as a quarterback sneak and a third interception by Sanchez, setting a Class 8A championship game record and tying the overall title game mark -- added up to the 13th win of the season against a single defeat and Frank Lenti’s 10th state title as Caravan coach.
“We’ve got heart,” said Butkus, whose injured ankle was tightly wrapped after a week of treatment. “We may not be the biggest team, but we’ve got heart.”
The contest was close for the first 34 minutes. A quick strike enabled Mount Carmel to tie the game 7-7 immediately after Justin Jackson’s 76-yard interception of Butkus’ pass to Matt Domer gave the Panthers (12-2) the lead.
After Christian Searles returned the kickoff to the Caravan 22, Butkus pitched to Smith. Using Vincent Speller’s seal block, he bolted up the right sideline and raced 78 yards for the tying score with 9:34 left in the second quarter.
He would gain 129 yards on seven carries.
The Caravan took the lead on its next possession, Butkus turning a quarterback sneak on third-and-1 into a 35-yard touchdown run and a 14-7 lead with 1:20 left in the half.
The middle opened up and Butkus, who ran for 50 yards and passes for 34 more, needed to dodge only one Panther en route to the end zone.
Glenbard North’s next long drive ended with Vincent Speller’s interception of Brian Murphy on the Mount Carmel goal line. And Murphy was picked off on the next series, Sanchez grabbing a pass intended for Ryan Storto on the goal line and taking it back to the Glenbard North 37.
That set up a Caravan drive that culminated in Butkus’ 7-yard touchdown pass to Jason Gasser for a 21-7 lead with 1:15 left in the third quarter.
The lead moved to 28-7 when Smith took a pitch, ranged to the right, and ran 25 yards for a score, faking out Mario Rodriquez so badly he fell out of bounds and sprained an ankle.
With 10:31 remaining, Mount Carmel appeared to be on the way to an easy victory, but the Panthers rallied for a last score, Murphy’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Storto with 3:44 remaining.
The Caravan held Jackson to 63 yards on 28 carries. He entered the game with 2,539 yards and 35 touchdowns.
Mount Carmel, now 11-4 in state title games, piled up 256 rushing yards to Glenbard North’s 109.