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Benet defenders Tim Veselik (left) and Nic Surges team up to stop Downers Grove North quarterback David Edwards. | Jon Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media
After enduring an 1-8 finish in 2011, outside expectations for Benet coming into the 2012 season probably weren’t substantial.
Eleven victories later, the Redwings find themselves in their first state semifinal in 28 years when the second-seeded Redwings host top-seeded Lincoln-Way East in Class 7A at Benedictine University on Saturday night.
Aiming to set a Benet season record for victories (12) and advance to the program’s first state championship game since losing to Morris, 31-14, in the 1984 Class 4A state title game, Benet will continue playing the underdog role opposite the undefeated Griffins.
That suits third-year Redwings’ coach Pat New just fine.
“Our guys are up to the challenge. We just want to try to keep it as close into the fourth quarter because our guys are good at pulling games out in the fourth quarter,” he said. “So if we can do that, we’ll give ourselves a shot. Our players know how explosive they are offensively and they know how good they are defensively, so we realize the challenge ahead of us. The challenge I gave our team is you have to elevate your game now and try to match your competition here.”
Winners of its last nine games, Benet (11-1) hasn’t lost since dropping a 17-16 decision to St. Patrick on Sept. 8 and is still playing thanks to its Houdini act last Saturday at eighth-seeded Downers Grove North.
Seeing its 20-7 halftime lead go by the boards while giving up 17 unanswered points in the second half to go down 24-20, Benet traveled 65 yards in 84 seconds and won the game as time expired when sophomore QB Jack Beneventi found senior Jack Toner in the end zone for a three-yard TD pass and a 26-24 victory.
But it’s the three second-half turnovers, two fumbles and an interception, and allowing Downers Grove North to block a punt and return it for a TD that are causes for concern, especially considering the Redwings overcame five turnovers the week before in their win over Oswego and turned the ball over twice in a 24-10 Class 7A first-round win over Andrew.
New is well aware that if that trend continues, it could be very worrisome against a team like the Griffins.
“We never did (turn the ball over a ton during the regular season). We usually won the turnover battle,” he said. “Against Nazareth and Marist, we had zero turnovers. We did a really nice job of protecting the football (during the regular season), so we really got to get back to that — especially this week against Lincoln-Way East.”
Behind senior quarterback Tommy Fuessel, Lincoln-Way East’s spread offense has averaged 35.8 points and has scored at least 40 points five times.
The Northern Illinois-bound Fuessel came into the Griffins’ Class 7A state quarterfinal meeting with Edwardsville last week with 1,042 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns while throwing for 797 yards and six touchdowns.
All Fuessel did against Edwardsville in a 40-10 Griffins’ victory was run for 248 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries.
The win propelled Lincoln-Way East to its first state semifinal since 2006 and to the brink of its first state title game visit since winning the 2005 Class 8A state title.
“He’s certainly the heart and soul of their offense. He’s just so tough because you stop him on the run, he’s gonna throw and beat you,” New said of the 6-foot-3, 180-pound Fuessel. “If you try to defend and drop a bunch of guys, he’s just gonna run and beat with his feet. So facing dual-threat quarterbacks are really a new challenge.
“I also think the thing that makes Lincoln-Way East dangerous is that they really spread you out, so they can distribute it to receivers or have that quarterback run. I think that’s where the spread offenses are really designed to feature a dual-threat quarterback because as (Ohio State coach) Urban Meyer said: ‘You can defend the run and you defend the pass, but you can’t defend both.’”
The best way for Benet to combat that is to keep Fuessel and the Griffins’ high-powered offense off the field by trying to find balance with its own offense and controlling the ball with Beneventi holding the controls.
Beneventi completed 26 of his 46 passes for 236 yards to go along with two touchdowns and an interception last week at Downers Grove North, and the Redwings’ running game saw juniors Porter Ontko and Nick McTarnaghan combine for 82 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
“On the offensive side of the ball, they play great team defense,” New said. “We gotta try to be balanced as much as can with trying to set up a running game to balance out our passing attack and then, of course, protecting the football as I’ve said every week. But we just haven’t done a great job of that lately.”