FOX LAKE, Ill. -- While it certainly wasn't pretty, Vernon Hills’ shutout streak lived to see another week thanks to a 20-0 victory over rival Grant on Friday night in Fox Lake.
Making up for a poor offensive showing, the widely discussed Cougars defense did not disappoint, forcing seven Grant turnovers -- six fumbles and one interception.
Perhaps it was the absence of Ohio State-bound receiver Evan Spencer that enabled the Bulldogs’ defense to limit Vernon Hills to just 5-yards of total offense.
“Obviously we missed Evan because he helps us spread the field out," said Cougars head coach Tony Monken. "I'm not sure how word got out that he was hurt, but their defensive scheme was definitely lined up as if they knew he'd be out."
Spencer, who did not see action due to a lower muscle strain, is expected to be back in the Vernon Hills lineup next week against Lake Forest. In his absence, Vernon Hills' other Division-I receiver, DaVaris Daniels (headed to Notre Dame), only managed one catch for 13 yards in the first quarter. Daniels did, however, make jaws drop on an 85-yard punt return touchdown to score Vernon Hills’ first points midway through the second quarter.
Despite only trailing 7-0 at halftime, Grant failed to establish its offense, not managing a first down until minutes into the third quarter. Senior running back-turned-quarterback Alex Cacchione ran for 70 yards on 21 carries, while fellow senior Steven Niewiedzial collected 59 yards on the ground. The two also accounted for three fumbles and an interception.
For Vernon Hills, running back Brian Palmer shouldered much of the load in the second half, finishing the game with 43 rushing yards and the final two Cougars’ touchdowns. "In the second half, our offensive line did a hell of a job," said Palmer, who scored on runs of 3 and 2 yards. "They started moving guys up front and that was huge for us."
Palmer's first score was set up by one of two Dustin Rusch fumble recoveries after punter Austin Miller pinned the Bulldogs back on their own 3-yard line, while the second also came off of a turnover in the fourth quarter.
Even with a comfortable 20-0 lead down the stretch, everyone on the Vernon Hills sidelines held their collective breath during Grant's final drive. With under a minute remaining and Grant facing a fourth-and-14 from the Vernon Hills 28, Steven Niewiedzial's 45-yard field goal attempt fell inches short, securing a seventh straight shutout for the Cougars.
"Our defense is doing a heck of a job and they saved us tonight," Monken said.
Players of the game: Vernon Hills RB Brian Palmer: 12 carries, 43 yards, 2 TDs and Vernon Hills Dustin Rusch and Wayne Didier: 2 Fum Rec each.
Stat of the game: Vernon Hills forced 7 Grant turnovers but was outgained 128-5 in total offense; Grant did not complete its only pass of the game.
It was over when: The Cougars' shutout was secured for the seventh week in a row.
Quote of the night: “Our special teams coordinator said he couldn't kick one from that far, so I trusted him," Monken said laughing. "We were more worried about the fake than we were about blocking it."