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Knights win 3rd straight conference crown

MAPLE PARK – For a football team that prefers to deflect – not deal with – hype, Kaneland could do little to shake the hoopla that swarmed Peterson Field on Friday night.

A meeting of unbeatens to decide the Northern Illinois Big 12 East title started and ended with Kaneland and Morris trading big plays and big stops. The Knights recorded the last of both in a 33-30 victory.

“That’s just so intense,” Knights senior linebacker Ryan Lawrence said. “Both great teams. We practiced our hearts out this week, and for it to come out like this, it’s the best feeling in the world, you know.”

Kaneland (9-0, 5-0 NI Big 12 East) swarmed Morris quarterback Zach Cinnamon for a sack as time expired and the Redskins (8-1, 4-1) had the ball just inside their half of midfield.

Morris led, 10-7, at halftime, but Kaneland’s success with its newly-installed jumbo package turned the momentum after halftime, helping the Knights clinch their third straight conference crown. Shifting from wildcat direct snaps to handoffs from either starting quarterback Drew David or backup Tyler Carlson, the Knights relied on junior Jesse Balluff for much of their second-half offense.

Balluff rushed for 115 of his 127 yards after halftime, including a 53-yard direct snap score early in the third quarter on the team’s first jumbo play. Seeking a boost for the second half, Knights coach Tom Fedderly placed Jaumaureo Phillips (6-foot-4, 325 pounds) at tackle while moving Joe Komel (6-5, 270) and Justin Diddell (6-4, 280) as up backs.

Still, the Knights’ usual spread offense explosiveness was on display. Playing with a taped right, throwing hand after a practice injury he suffered during Week 8, David returned after missing last week’s Sycamore game to throw for 187 yards and three touchdowns.

Zack Martinelli caught the first and third score. The latter touchdown, a 5-yarder, came on a brilliant stop route and put the Knights ahead by the final margin with 27 seconds remaining.

“[Fedderly] trusted me with that last play,” Martinelli said. “We worked on that same route numerous times all year, and Drew put that ball on the money. It couldn’t have been any better. I mean, I saw it coming. I was smiling as it was coming to me.”

It’s possible these teams could meet again in the later rounds of the Class 5A postseason. Both the Knights and Redskins tentatively were slotted in that bracket earlier this week as part of the IHSA’s most recent playoff outlook, with Friday’s outcome likely to determine which school would receive a top seed.

Playoff pairings are scheduled to be released at 8 tonight via – they’ll be simulcast on Comcast SportsNet – with the 5A bracket due to be revealed about 8:48. Coming off successive losses to eventual 5A champ Montini in the state semifinals, the Knights know the next few weeks are fraught with possibility.

“This group of guys, it’s family. I can’t put a limit on us,” Lawrence said. “I’m not claiming anything in the future, but we’ll work our butts off, you know. We’ll push as hard and as far as we can.”

Kaneland encountered a fellow NI Big 12 East foe en route to the 5A semifinals last season, as Rochelle trimmed a 21-point margin of defeat in Week 5 to six in the quarterfinals.

Entering Friday, the average score in the Knights’ 14 conference games, rounded to the nearest point, was 40-14 Kaneland. The spread grew to a gaudier 43-11 edge in the Knights’ favor when six NI Big 12 crossover games were added. Morris has played the Knights to within three points in the past two seasons, with both games deciding the NI Big 12 East title.

Kaneland’s most recent league loss of any kind came in Week 8 of 2009, when Geneva clipped the Knights, 27-24, in the penultimate game of the Western Sun Conference. The Knights since have stormed to 28 successive regular season victories.

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