'This team comes through': How Rockford Lutheran finally secured its playoff spot
WINNEBAGO — This time, Kyng Hughes and Lutheran left nothing to chance.
After two close losses in the past three weeks, Lutheran (5-4) and its star quarterback plowed past Winnebago 21-7 on Friday for its fifth win, likely securing its first playoff bid since 2016. It will become official when the IHSA announces the playoff pairings on Saturday night.
"This was cool. It was kind of a feeling of relief, and a feeling of accomplishment," said Hughes, who completed 11 of his 16 passes for 214 yards, with a touchdown and no interceptions.
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Hughes also had five tackles at cornerback and helped the Crusaders ground a potent Winnebago passing attack. "When it was over, we just went crazy. All of us. And it carried over into the locker room, onto the bus, and the entire ride home."
Winnebago (5-4), another surprise team from the Big Northern Conference, also most likely will be making a playoff appearance, its first since 2017. But it won't have the momentum that Hughes and Lutheran have. Winnebago quarterback Alec Weavel, who came into the game second in the conference in passing with 919 yards through the air, completed just 6 of his 16 passes for 59 yards without a TD but with one interception.
Weavel ran in a 9-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter to open the scoring. But Lutheran's Gavin Sanders darted in for a 39-yard TD run just over a minute later, and then Hughes hit David Ballard on a 63-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left in the first half to give the Crusaders a 14-7 lead at the break.
"That was huge; that TD just before half was huge," Lutheran's first-year coach Jeff Luedke said. "We needed it, and we got it. This team comes through.
"Kyng just willed us to a win."
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A.J. Moore capped off a long, sustained drive by Lutheran with under three minutes left in the third quarter that provided the final margin, and the Crusaders' defense did the rest of the work to bring this one home.
"Man, the defense just dialed it up tonight," Luedke added.
Lutheran fell 23-14 to BNC co-champ Stillman Valley in Week 8, and 22-19 to Dixon back in Week 6, forcing a must-win situation this week. But the Crusaders, led by linebackers Hunter Evans (13 tackles) and Leo Lara (8 tackles with a sack and a tackle for loss), shut down Winnebago down the stretch.
It was only the second time Winnebago was shut out in the second half of a game this season.
"The key was, on both sides of the ball, we just played together," Hughes said.
Lutheran narrowly outgained Winnebago 345-336 in total yards, and the Crusaders' D forced a pair of Winnebago turnovers that were key.
Jay Taft is a Rockford Register Star sports reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @JayTaft. Sign up for the Rockford High School newsletter at rrstar.com. Jay has covered a wide variety of sports, from the Chicago Bears to youth sports, for more than 20 years at the Register Star, and for nearly 30 years all together. He was a four-sport athlete himself, and is the father of five that went on to be jocks of some kind as well.