The Highland Bulldogs on Friday saw a lot of the same Cahokia players they saw on opening day of 2015.
But it was hardly the same team they beat, 45-8, nearly a year to the day earlier.
Behind senior quarterback Wayne Grant, the BND Player of the Week, the Comanches rallied late to pull off the surprising non-conference win, 25-24.
The difference between this year and last, Grant says, is new energy introduced by first-year head coach John Clay and improved play by his offensive front.
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"Coach has brought discipline and a plan that we were able to execute," he said. "Because of what he's taught our line, I had time and was able to sit back there and make my reads and make correct throws.”
Clay, says another big difference Friday was his third-year starter's presence in the huddle. With the Comanches down by five points with 70 yards to go, Clay said he had little doubt that Grant would come through.
You could see Friday from the very first play that he was on a different level and it continued throughout the game.
John Clay, Cahokia first-year head football coach
Indeed he did. Grant capped off the winning drive with an 11-yard pass to Kenyon Sanders with just 14.4 seconds left on the clock.
"I knew coming in that Wayne was a heck of a ball player and I put a lot of pressure on Wayne to be our leader," said Clay, a former NFL first-round pick and East St. Louis assistant. "You could see Friday from the very first play that he was on a different level and it continued throughout the game."
It was a big night all around for Grant, who finished with 270 yards passing and four touchdowns — two to Demarion Hinkle, one to George Smith, and the game-winner to Sanders.
Grant used both his legs and his arm to drive the field while consuming five minutes from the game clock. Three times during the game-winning drive, he scrambled for first downs on fourth-and-long. It was a pass-interference penalty that took Cahokia down to the Highland 11-yard-line.
"We were in a lot of those fourth-down situations," he said. "(The Highland defensive backs) were so far back and I knew for a fact that if I was able to scramble that they'd have to respect my running ability and come up. A lot of those I was just able to slip through tackles and get the first down."
Playing his running ability against the Highland coverage is exactly how he set up the game-winner.
"I guess when I stepped up and rolled to the right, the guy who was defending Kenyon came in towards me," Grant said. "I saw Kenyon, but I was never looking to make them think 'Oh, I've got to go back and get my man.' I was looking in the middle of the field and then just popped my shoulders and dumped it over his defender ... Six."
We can do what we did (Friday) because we have so many athletes on this Cahokia team and because we can execute the plan our coaching staff gives to us.
Wayne Grant, Cahokia senior quarterback
As for Grant, his personal performance shouldn't shock anyone. He was an All-South Seven Conference selection last season, having completed 58 percent of his 169 pass attempts for 1,344 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The Comanches, however, were just 4-5 and missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
But Highland has qualified for the Class 5A playoffs four years running and is once again a Mississippi Valley Conference contender in 2016, thanks to the return of running back Trent Rakers and quarterback Garrett Marti, among others.
More tough games loom for the Comanches, including its non-conference contest against Sumner High School at the Champions Classic this Saturday in East St. Louis. The South Seven Conference will further challenge them with the likes of Centralia, Marion and, Illinois' top-ranked 5A team, the Althoff Crusaders.
But pulling off the win over the Bulldogs, Grant says, made a definite statement about how far Cahokia football has come.
"We can do what we did (Friday) because we have so many athletes on this Cahokia team and because we can execute the plan our coaching staff gives to us," he said. "Highland is physical, but it was great that we could come through with the win."
At 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, Grant is on the smaller side of quarterbacks at his level. But his athleticism has drawn the attention of some NAIA colleges, including Missouri Baptist and Lindenwood-Belleville.