Hononegah had Boylan’s streak dead to rights.
And then Boylan pulled off the greatest mid-game switch in NIC-10 history. Brock Stull, perhaps the best quarterback in the conference, moved to receiver and had 102 yards on six catches in 2 1/2 quarters as Boylan rallied from 21 points down to win 35-34.
“You put him at receiver and look at what he does in one half,” Hononegah running back Sam Ballano said. “It was remarkable. And the quarterback they change to ends up being a quarterback at a Big Ten school. The ups and downs in that game seem like something you would only see in a movie.”
Almost exactly one year later, after Ballano had rushed for 161 yards and all five Hononegah touchdowns, Ballano looked up to see the same score. Only this time with Hononegah ahead 35-34 to snap Boylan’s massive 75-game conference winning streak.
“When I looked up and saw 35-34, I thought, ‘This has got to be a joke.’ We had that first game in the bag, leading 21-0,” Ballano said. “Seeing that score — and on their home field — I still can’t describe what it meant to us.
“You don’t play just for that game, but year-in and year-out, when those guys are our rivals from day one, to be the team to break their streak, it was awesome.”
Those two 35-34 games, 364 days apart in September 2013 and 2014, were picked as a joint entry for the fourth-greatest football games in Rockford-area history.
In the first game, Stull relied on lessons he learned from his dad, former Illinois State quarterback Steve Stull.
“I grew up playing a little bit of receiver with the Nelson Storm,” said Stull, the NIC-10 basketball MVP that year who later starred with UW-Milwaukee and played his final season for Minnesota in the Big Ten. “My dad played quarterback in college, so when we would play around with neighborhood kids out in the backyard I would always be the receiver. It felt natural. And having a guy like Demry throw to you made it easier.”
Demry Croft was as dangerous with his feet as with his big arm. Croft would go on to set a Minnesota QB record with 184 yards rushing in a win over Nebraska and later played for Tennessee State before being dismissed from the team after being accused of rape.
“Croft was so difficult to defend,” said Brian Zimmerman, Hononegah’s current head coach and the defensive line coach during those 35-34 games. “He was a big dual threat.
“And Stull is a tall, lanky young man who runs his routes well. It helps to be a quarterback/receiver. You know exactly where the ball should be placed.”
Hononegah, armed with Alex Martin and Jake Wilson, who combined to rush for more than 3,000 yards that year, ran for 402 yards and had Boylan’s defense reeling all night. But even ahead 21-0, Hononegah was worried.
“That was the discussion at halftime,” Zimmerman said. “Don’t get comfortable. Boylan always came back strong in the second half. That’s what they are known for. We had our hands full and just couldn’t hold on.”
Hononegah fumbled seven times and the game turned on three plays. Star defensive back Adrian Marquez fumbled at the 1 — Hononegah claims photos showed he was in the end zone first — and left the game with a knee injury on a play that could have put Hononegah up 21-0 but was instead returned 55 yards by Boylan. Matt Sciame returned another Hononegah fumble 25 yards for a TD to make it 21-7. And, finally, Stull caught a 33-yard pass from Croft (10 of 14 for 134 yards) on fourth-and-6 to set up Sam McGuire’s winning 3-yard TD run.
A year later, McGuire was again making noise, returning an interception 52 yards for a 27-14 Boylan lead midway through the third quarter. Stull had graduated, but Croft was now a full-fledged star. He completed 14 of 23 passes for 266 yards and three TDs.
Hononegah was not nearly as explosive this game. The Indians didn’t run for 400 yards again. But they held on to the ball. And they kept giving it to Ballano, who plowed through Boylan’s line for the final touchdown and again for the winning 2-point conversion, making it in by inches both times, to give Hononegah the lead with 21 seconds left.
“We rode Ballano for all we could,” Zimmerman said. “He kept saying, ‘Give me the ball.’ He’s a totally unselfish player — he wasn’t single-handedly trying to win the game — but he knew he could get those tough yards.”
“I’m not the guy who wants all the glory,” said Ballano, who ran for a NIC-10 record 28 touchdowns that year, “but you’ve got to ride with what’s working. They couldn’t stop us from getting three yards a pop. We had to keep going with it.”
That game would vault Hononegah to its own school-record win streak. The Indians would go on to win 23 games in a row and post only their second and third undefeated conference seasons. But Zimmerman never liked to talk about the streak.
“It’s unnerving,” Zimmerman said. “You try not to think about the streak. The streak doesn’t matter. What matters is how you play and where you finish in the conference, but it looms over you.”
If a 23-game streak can be unnerving, imagine how it felt for Boylan to preserve a 67-game streak with that first 35-34 game. And then to lose a 75-game streak — the old conference record was 32 by Freeport — by the same 35-34 score a year later. Not that the Titans went away easily. Croft somehow drove them 50 yards in the final 16 seconds, reaching the Hononegah 24 before Clayton Bee’s goal-line interception ended the game on the final play.
“I felt bad for the guys at school when I heard,” said Stull, who was taking a redshirt year at UW-Milwaukee. “They were probably all thinking about the streak. But I was still proud of them. We didn’t give it up the year before.
“And everything comes to an end.”
Matt Trowbridge: firstname.lastname@example.org; @matttrowbridge