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The inability to finish off potential victories was all that stood in the way of a perfect season for Evanston’s football team during the pandemic-shortened campaign last spring.
Maybe the Wildkits have learned that lesson already in the fall of 2021.
Coach Mike Burzawa’s squad chewed six-and-a-half minutes off the scoreboard clock in the fourth quarter Friday night in the season opener in Kenosha, Wis., and mounted a touchdown drive that clinched a 26-6 victory over Indian Trail in the program’s first matchup against an out-of-state opponent since 1965.
Junior quarterback Dylan Groff ran for 136 yards and passed for 137, and Gio Milam-Pryor added a pair of short touchdown runs for an Evanston team that was missing some starters, including four-star University of North Carolina linebacker recruit Sebastian Cheeks, with nagging injuries. Ben Barney contributed a pair of field goals from 30 and 27 yards.
Indian Trail, which won its season opener 42-19 two weeks ago, did put together a 99-yard scoring drive in the third quarter, but mustered only four first downs the remainder of the contest.
Evanston started fast with touchdowns on two of its first three possessions. But Burzawa knows that it’s the ability to finish strong that will separate the pretenders from the contenders again this year.
“I’m really proud of the kids and I’m really happy with the way we finished the game,” said the ETHS coach. “Finishing games is all about heart, about desire, about staying together as a team and executing. We executed by converting all of those third downs [a total of four] and we really bled the clock.
“We were tested when we didn’t score late in the third quarter, and because of that turnover [Milam-Pryor’s fumble at the 1] were only up two scores instead of four. Last year we lost three games [to New Trier, Maine South and Lincoln-Way] that we didn’t finish, but tonight we had a drive that lasted almost seven minutes and that made the difference.”
Groff’s ability to execute the RPO (run-pass option) offense showed he was the right choice to start the season opener at quarterback, beating out incumbent Sean Cruz coming out of preseason training camp. On Friday, the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder completed 17-of-30 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown, but added a power element to the rushing attack with 25 carries for 136 yards.
Evanston led 20-0 at the halftime break, but Milam-Pryor’s fumble at the 1 gave the Wisconsin team a chance to finally grab some momentum in its Kenosha home debut. It took the Hawks just 8 plays – including a 55-yard burst by sophomore quarterback L.J. Dagen – to march 99 yards to paydirt, with the score coming on a 1-yard plunge by Justin Lovelace.
But on the next possession, the Wildkit defense stiffened inside the 20 and Mark Canon Jr.’s sure tackle of Indian Trail receiver Aiden Burrell-Warfield at the 6 following a fourth down completion saw the hosts come up empty.
Fifteen plays later, the Kits had sealed the victory. Biggest play of the drive was Groff’s 12-yard completion to Kamau Ransom on 3rd-and-9 at the Indian Trail 36. Later, Milam-Pryor converted a 4th-and-inches opportunity, then iced the win with his 8-yard scoring run with 4:18 remaining in the game.
Milam-Pryor, a senior, scored the Kits’ first TD of the season on a 1-yard run in the first quarter, and Groff hooked up with Ransom for a 38-yard score later in the same period. The Wildkits host Libertyville this Friday night, Sept. 3, in their home opener.