WILMINGTON – In a battle between two undefeated Interstate Eight champions, Wilmington outlasted Manteno, 42-35, on Friday to claim its 23rd consecutive victory.
For the defending Class 3A champion Wildcats (9-0), running backs Nick Hawkins and Owen Weaver led the attack on a rainy night.
Hawkins went 71 yards to give the Wildcats a 35-28 lead with 10:11 left. James Cox recovered a Manteno fumble with 9:57 left, and Weaver scored his second touchdown from 40 yards. After Alex Hatten’s sixth extra point, Wilmington led, 42-28.
With 7:53 left, Logan Duvall (20 carries, 90 yards), scored his third touchdown to bring Manteno (8-1) within 42-35. Quarterback Gavin Zimbelman completed 8 of his 20 passes for 212 yards, with 192 coming in the second half.
With a minute to go, Manteno had a third-and-2 at the Wildcats’ 16-yard line. Jake Capwell batted down a Zimbelman pass and then on fourth down, the entire Wildcat defense stuffed Zimbelman on a quarterback keeper to effectively end it.
“This was a great win for us against a very good Manteno team,” Capwell said. “We really shut them down in the first half. We made some mistakes to get them going in the second half. I was able to read Zimbelman and get my hand up on the third down pass. It was awesome the way the whole defense stuffed him on the sneak to end the game.”
After Manteno struck first on a 12-yard run by Duvall with 10:37 in the first quarter, the opening half belonged to the I-8 Small champion Wilmington’s defense. Brett McWilliams’ first of two sacks forced a Manteno punt, which led to Hawkins’ first touchdown from 21 yards out to tie it at 7 with 7:59 in the half.
Bailey Boswell’s hit separated the ball from Zimbelman and into the hands of Sam Jones in the end zone for a touchdown. With a minute to go in the half, Hawkins scored on fourth-and-goal from the 1 for a 21-7 Wildcat lead.
Steve Smock’s pick of Zimbelman put the finishing touches on the first-half defensive effort. Zimbelman, who entered with 1,739 yards and 23 touchdowns, completed one first-half pass for 20 yards.
“We really played outstanding defense against an outstanding offensive team in the first half,” McWilliams said. “I am really proud of the fact that we have had another perfect regular season and have won 23 consecutive games. We have represented our school and our community well.”
Hawkins had 172 yards on 26 carries and scored three touchdowns, while Weaver rushed for 109 of his 141 yards in the second half, including two 40-yard scoring runs.
“We hit. They hit. It was a real battle and we came out on top,” Weaver said. “The line was outstanding again.”
“It was a great game for us. We all made some big plays that contributed to this win,” Hawkins said. “It was a great atmosphere between two great teams, and we came out on top.”
One year ago, the Wildcats and Panthers entered this game with identical 8-0 marks, and Wilmington came out on top, 21-7.
“What a great football game between two great football teams,” Wildcats coach Jeff Reents said. “It truly is a shame someone had to lose. Manteno’s offense is unbelievable. Our defense really stepped up in the first half.
“We really ran the ball well with Nick and Owen. We made the big stop at the end to get this victory. This is a tough one for both of us to bounce back from, with the playoffs next week. It’s great to have a Week 9 battle of unbeaten teams but it really drains you emotionally.”