NAPERVILLE — O'Fallon coach Brandon Joggerst and his staff had a five-hour, 265-mile bus ride Friday afternoon to put the final touches on a game plan that had to focus on slowing down speedy Neuqua Valley receiver Mikey Dudek.
But knowing you have to stop Dudek and actually doing it are completely different things. The Illinois-bound Dudek finished with eight catches for 185 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Wildcats to a 38-7 Class 8A first-round playoff win.
"He did a lot against us," said Joggerst. "He's very dangerous with the ball in his hands, we missed some coverages and he took advantage of it."
While Dudek hauled in 10- and 27-yard TD tosses from quarterback Broc Rutter in the game's first 8 minutes, staking Neuqua (9-1) to a 13-0 lead, the Wildcats proved that they are not one-dimensional on offense as running backs Nolan Dean (79 yards) and T.J. Scruggs (104 yards) combined for 183 yards rushing on 30 carries with three touchdowns.
Dean also made a huge defensive play from his linebacker position as his sack of Panther quarterback Camden Bauer led to a fumble and a Godfrey Collins' recovery at the Panthers' 29, which set up Dudek's second score.
The Wildcats' defense also made a huge play late in the first half to turn the game's momentum fully in their favor.
Trailing 19-7, the Panthers had risen up and stopped the Wildcats on a fourth-down play from the 5 with 5 minutes left in the half.
From there, Bauer calmly completed six straight passes to move the ball to the Neuqua 33, but when he forced a throw under duress it was intercepted by the Wildcats' Eli Tappin.
From its own 30, Neuqua needed just six plays and 46 seconds to go 70 yards, with Rutter hitting Dudek from 9 yards out at the 14-second mark.
"We were moving the ball at the end of the half and if we punch it in there it's 19-14," lamented Joggerst. "Instead, they go in and we're down three scores."
For Neuqua coach Bill Ellinghaus, it was a chance for his defense to take some of the spotlight away from an offense that was averaging 44 points per game and had not scored less than five touchdowns in a game.
"We challenged them this week and they rose to the occasion," said Ellinghaus. "We've played great quarters, played great halves, but tonight we played 48 minutes on defense and I give all the credit to our kids and coaches."
Afterwards, the Panthers (5-5) had a long ride home to contemplate a season that had its highs and lows, but ultimately didn't live up to expectations.
"It never ends the way you want, expect for eight teams," said Joggerst. "Our program's goal isn't just the first round of the playoffs, but I told the kids sometimes you just have to relish the glory of the battle."