Alex Bennett, who ended up starting three years, wasn’t supposed to quarterback Freeport.
Brandon McShane was.
“He was going to be our starting quarterback, but we needed to put him out at receiver,” then-coach Terry Werntz said.
“I ended up switching positions through an injury,” McShane said. “But it was a blessing to be able to play with Alex Bennett. He was one of my good friends growing up and he had a talented arm.”
McShane, like his eight brothers in Freeport’s most storied football family, was talented at just about everything on a football field. And the talents of Bennett and McShane were never on better display than in a record-setting 56-49 loss at No. 10-ranked Hononegah in 2010, a game we have picked as the 10th greatest football game in Freeport-area history.
Bennett, then a junior, hit McShane for an 80-yard touchdown on the game’s first play. He had 300 yards passing at halftime — only 34 yards shy of the NIC-10 record for a game. He finished with 482 yards — still the league record, well ahead of the 418 by Boylan’s Demry Croft four years later. And McShane set the receiving record with 234 yards, although that has since been passed by Harlem’s Brandt Hixson (249) and East’s Austin Young (247).
“I didn’t know McShane could throw the ball,” said Chase Robinson, Hononegah’s quarterback in 2010. “He could run and catch. If he could throw the ball too, that would be crazy.
“He was catching balls over the middle and making people miss all night. They were hitting slants over the middle. Everything Bennett threw was caught and they ran 10 or 15 yards after that every single play. It was tough to watch.”
Bennett finished the season with 2,198 yards passing, still No. 5 in NIC-10 history, and ranks third in the league with 4,561 yards and 45 TDs.
The Pretzels could run that year, too. Tevin Person had 99 yards on 14 carries against Hononegah and Freeport finished with 659 yards of total offense.
But Hononegah ran for 461 yards. Carlos Hendrix ran for 162 yards and four TDs on only 11 carries, including the game-winner on second-and-goal from the 12 with just over two minutes left. Bryan Rothmaler added 156 yards and Robinson had 86 yards rushing and completed 3 of 5 passes for 38 yards.
“We ran the ball 40 or 50 times,” Robinson said. “That's how you win with the Wing T triple option. We couldn’t stop them and they couldn’t stop us.”
“They had a talented quarterback and good running backs,” said McShane, who also played safety. “It was a real good combination. You had to pick your poison.”
Freeport never seemed to pick right on defense. That undid what might have been Werntz’s best team in his five years as coach — he made the playoffs once and finished 5-5 that year, but went 4-5 three other years, including in 2010 when they also lost 46-42 to Belvidere North in a game in which the Pretzels had two touchdown passes called back by penalty.
“We changed our defense up,” Werntz said of that game against Hononegah, which won its first eight games before losing to undefeated Boylan in the NIC-10 title game in the season finale. “I thought it was going to be a big thing for us, but they put up points.
“But from an offensive standpoint, we thought we could score anytime, anywhere on the field. If we could get the ball in the hands of one of our receivers, we could make a big play and score from everywhere.”
Josh Lewis, a basketball player out for football for the first time, track star Sam Willis, DeJuan Curry, Devin Best and McShane gave Bennett a lot of targets.
“We had a ridiculous receiving corps,” McShane said. “We had unbelievable speed.”
So much speed that Hononegah also changed its defense. Also to little effect.
“They stopped blitzing as we started to score,” Werntz said. “That gave us more time to throw the ball. They dropped more guys into coverage, and with our quickness we still got open.”
No one was going to cover Brandon McShane that night, not after his 80-yard TD put the Pretzels ahead 7-0 only 13 seconds into the game.
“Once I got that first touchdown, that made my day,” McShane said. “I was on fire. Put the ball in my range and I’m going to make something happen.”
Hononegah was making it happen on offense, too. The two teams had scored nine consecutive touchdowns when Freeport took over for the last time at its own 16-yard line. Werntz had already decided to go for 2 and the win if the Pretzels scored. They quickly drove 61 yards to the Hononegah 23 where they faced third-and-1. A run went nowhere. On fourth down, Bennett, under pressure, tried to shovel a pass to Willis that fell incomplete with 43 seconds left.
“Alex could have taken off with that and got the first down for us, but we threw and didn’t complete it,” Werntz said. “But Alex played incredible for us the entire year.”
“I can’t remember that last drive on offense,” said McShane, who recently watched tape of that game with his 7-year-old son, Bentlee. “I just know how it ended for our defense.
“It definitely hurt coming up and short-stepping that one.”
Matt Trowbridge: 815-987-1383; email@example.com; @matttrowbridge