ROCHELLE — It was nearly a storybook ending for the Rochelle varsity football team Saturday evening.
The Hubs marched nearly 70 yards down the field late in the fourth quarter of Northern Illinois Big 12 West action against undefeated Sterling. Rochelle used 15 plays and eight minutes of time before scoring on a 2-yard rushing touchdown by senior Brandon Johnson to take a 20-17 lead over the Golden Warriors with 36.9 seconds remaining in the game.
Sterling moved the ball quickly on its final possession after wide receiver Weston Sisson caught a 46-yard pass down the right sideline, but Rochelle senior Larry Beck knocked the Golden Warriors back with a sack of quarterback Cooper Willman soon after. With 5.1 seconds left in the game, Willman launched a 30-yard pass to the end zone.
Positioned behind Rochelle junior defensive back Wade Samp, Sisson jumped and caught Willman’s pass as time expired, giving the Golden Warriors a 23-20 win over the Hubs to stay perfect on the season. Sterling entered the game ranked No. 3 in Class 5A.
“This was everything we wanted from our kids tonight,” Rochelle head coach Kyle Kissack said. “There are 36 hearts laying on the field tonight because they gave their all and left it there. There was nothing left for them to give. Our kids are so resilient.”
Saturday’s game originally started Friday evening before play was suspended due to lightning. Action picked up Saturday night, however, and the Sterling defense made the first big play when Quintin Spaulding intercepted Rochelle senior quarterback Andrew Johnson.
The Golden Warriors (7-0, 3-0 NIB-12 West) cashed in with a 27-yard field goal from Eric Davila and led 3-0 before Rochelle countered with Brandon Johnson’s 59-yard touchdown run off the right side. The Hubs held a 6-3 lead entering the second quarter, but Sterling bounced back when Isaiah Ryan broke several Rochelle tackles en route to a 58-yard touchdown rush.
The Golden Warriors nearly scored again but Rochelle junior cornerback Keegan Davis-Carter intercepted a ball near the Rochelle goal line. Sterling led 10-6 at halftime.
“Sterling likes to spread the field and give the ball to their kids in space,” Kissack said. “We stopped the run really well… Our inside six did a really good job and they couldn’t get much going. Defensively, our kids played their hearts out but we came up just short in the end.”
Ryan added a 16-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter to give Sterling a 17-6 lead. The wet field gave way to muddy playing conditions as the game wore on, and the Hubs used the conditions to their advantage, running the ball down the field and scoring on an 11-yard rush by senior Eddie Villalobos, who added a 2-point conversion rush to make it 17-14 with 5:59 in the quarter.
The Rochelle defense forced a turnover on downs at its own 31-yard line in the fourth quarter before the Hubs took the lead on their 15-play, 69-yard drive that took exactly eight minutes to complete. Helped by two Sterling penalties, Rochelle jumped ahead 20-17 on Brandon Johnson’s 2-yard rush up the middle.
“We had a handful of drives where we chewed up some clock,” Kissack said. “That’s what we want to do. We want to limit possession. They started pressing to score some points because they don’t know if they’ll get the ball back. We get the ball with about nine minutes to go, and it set up perfectly for us… That was a Rochelle drive.”
Sisson’s game-winning catch in the end zone was an unfortunate seen for the Hubs, who also saw their fourth-quarter lead evaporate in the final seconds at Marion (43-40 loss) earlier this season. Rochelle (3-4, 2-1 NIB-12 West) will need to win its final two games at Ottawa and Kaneland to qualify for its third straight postseason bid.
“We won’t spend much time worrying about tonight because it’s over,” Kissack said. “We obviously need to get two wins and our kids understand that.”