HARRISBURG, ILL. – Defense stole the show here on Friday night.
Mt. Carmel’s defense made the first big play of the game – a 52-yard interception return for the game’s first touchdown by junior safety Trevor Peterson midway through the first quarter. The defense made it tough for Harrisburg all night inside, with a constant drumbeat of tackles for loss – 10 in all – that stymied the hosts time and time again. And at the close, there was that defense again - this time over the top, preventing a last-second aerial bailout.
The result: a 20-13 Mt. Carmel win over Harrisburg in southern Illinois’ marquee season opener -- as much a team victory as anything, for a squad looking to improve itself after an injury-riddled 2017 campaign.
“A fantastic job by the defense. They were kind of the shining star tonight,” said Mt. Carmel coach Michael Brewer. “We’ve got a lot of guys in different positions. The kids are so coachable. They love it, and do such a great job.”
Peterson’s jump of the pass delivered by Harrisburg quarterback Isaac Crabb, coming with 5:57 remaining in the first period, may have been worth more than the six points it showed on the scoreboard. Coming shortly after a promising Aces offensive drive had stalled out, the pick-six seemed to reinvigorate the Aces sideline.
It was a move by Peterson that the coaches not only hoped for, but “we expected that. That’s something he’s been doing all summer,” said Brewer.
The Aces had high hopes later in the quarter after a second Crabb interception, this time by Austin Rager. But, the visitors returned the favor with their only turnover of the night - also a pickoff - and Harrisburg suddenly had something to work with.
A 10-yard TD pass from Crabb to Jack Martin with 1:51 left in the opening frame tied the score at 7-7.
Mt. Carmel (1-0) traveled a rather circuitous route to its second touchdown of the night, one that put them ahead, 13-7, at halftime. The direct path seemed easy enough at first – with 6-foot-5 sophomore quarterback Kaleb Applebey pulling the ball out of the belly of 5-6 (no typo) running back Aiden Gill at the line and running an uncontested 67 yards to the end zone. But a block in the back wiped out the score.
So, the Aces churned it in with their second chance. But it wasn’t easy, as one successful fourth-down conversion would indicate. Gill, who finished with 56 yards on 19 carries (second to Applebey’s team-leading 67 yards) scored from four yards out with 2:41 left in the half to make it 13-7.
By the way, Gill is a two-way starter and the backup quarterback. That’s how very much taller he plays.
Said Brewer: “I was talking to Aiden before the game. We like to give him a hard time for being short. I said ‘You might as well embrace it right now, because they can’t even see you back there.’”
Applebey began to assert himself more on the ground as the night wore on. He finished with eight rushing attempts - more by design than reads of the defense, according to his coach.
“We wanted to throw it around with him a little more, but that wasn’t clicking like we hoped,” Brewer said. “Credit Harrisburg defensively, they were stout up front.”
Harrisburg (0-1) had the most success when it returned to its historic roots: a ground game almost exclusively tied to the straight-T offense. Junior Jordan Dalton’s longest run of a 17-carry night went for a touchdown. His seven-yarder tied the game at 13-all. But the subsequent point-after – like Mt. Carmel’s previous PAT try - went awry with 2:38 left in the third quarter. That was the only score of the period.
The Bulldogs were never able to capture that same rhythm on subsequent drives, and at the end were forced to go to the air due to time constraints.
Applebey finished 8-of-17 in the air for 77 yards and one interception. His stamp on the game occurred in back-to-back plays that produced what turned out to be the game-clinching touchdown with 9:13 left in the fourth quarter.
Following a kickoff return by freshman Zeke Hadra all the way to the Bulldogs’ 45-yard line, the right-handed Applebey hit Rager for 26 yards. On the next play, he finished the two-play scoring drive with a 19-yard run up the middle. Trent Wilkinson’s PAT accounted for the final score.
Peterson took over the main running back duties in the second half. And like Gill before, it did not take him long to get comfortable in the role. Peterson finished with 39 yards on the ground.
For Harrisburg, Kody Cavender led the way with 42 yards on the ground, followed by Carl Russ with 36 and Dalton’s 20. For the most part, it was tough-sledding against Mt. Carmel’s 3-4 defense. The Bulldogs team total of 99 yards came on 35 carries.
Meanwhile, the Aces collected 173 yards on the ground on 40 carries, pushing their total offense count to 239 yards.
Crabb, after hitting his first six passes, hit just three of his last 15, many coming late and in desperation.
Harrisburg got the ball one last time with under one minute to go, and buoyed by a late-hit call on the Aces with 2.5 seconds left, had time for one shootout play from the 41-yard line. But Crabb’s pass into a crowd was deflected as time out.
Mt. Carmel opens Big 8 Conference play next Friday at Mt. Vernon (1-1), which outslugged Posey County rival North Posey, 64-49, on Friday after losing to Heritage Hills, 45-7, on opening night in Indiana.