Wheaton North’s football program helped establish the DuPage Valley conference’s reputation for physical play, and despite the breakup of that conference last year, that reputation still lingers.

That’s what made Evanston’s season-opening 27-13 spanking of the Falcons especially sweet Friday night at Lazier Field.

The Wildkits whipped the visitors at their own game, and a solid performance in the trenches helped junior running back Quadre Nicholson rush for a career-high 204 yards and three touchdowns. Evanston’s defense  picked off three passes and limited the losers to just 72 yards on the ground.

Evanston junior running back Quadre Nicholson (1) heads upfield without a defender to challenge him.

The Kits dedicated the game to former Hall of Fame head football coach Murney Lazier in their first game since the ETHS legend passed away last spring. Somewhere, Coach Lazier was looking down and smiling because no one enjoyed playing smashmouth football more than Lazier did.

“It all started up front for us tonight,” said Kit head coach Mike Burzawa. “We challenged our offensive and defensive lines knowing we were up against a DuPage Valley powerhouse program, and I think that created a sense of urgency for our kids tonight.

“Our kids also understand the storied football tradition here at Evanston and we wanted to honor Coach Lazier, Murney’s Men (former Lazier players), the 1997 football team (new inductees into the Athletic Hall of Fame) and everyone who has supported the program over the years.”

Nicholson, running behind a veteran offensive line and aided by backfield mate Cion Miller-Smith’s bone-crushing blocks, not only eclipsed 200 yards for the first time in his varsity career — on 28 attempts — but his three TD runs were just one fewer than his entire point production last year, when he also led ETHS in rushing.

This year’s version of the running back is bigger, stronger, faster and more dedicated — Quadre 2.0 is the best way to describe him.

Or maybe it’s the new uniform number. Nicholson switched to No. 1 on his jersey this year — “just because yeah, it’s kinda cool to wear No. 1,” he said. “That’s why I picked it.”

One reason Nicholson only hit paydirt for 4 TDs as a sophomore was his inclination to run east-west instead of north-south. He’s discovered that the north-south path is the best way to find the end zone and scored on runs of 15, 1 and 3 yards Friday night.

“The difference for me this year is how hard I worked in the off-season,” said the junior standout. “And my teammates have been working and pushing me to try to get better. I’ve really just been working on everything.

“I studied my films from last year with Coach (Brent) Nance and I decided that I needed to cut outside less and run downhill more. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”

“Quadre did a nice job of settling in after the first quarter,” Burzawa added. “That’s when he started running downhill more. He got into a rhythm, and we got more physical and created some cutback lanes for him. I thought our linemen created a lot of movement at the point of attack.

“We were sound and we were physical tonight. Our kids played their hearts out and I’m so proud of them.”

Wildkit defenders Collin Olla-Chatman (24) and Amir Abudallah (5) team up for a sack on Wheaton North quarterback Nathan Love.

After a scoreless first quarter, Evanston struck first with 8 minutes, 32 seconds remaining in the half as Nicholson’s 15-yard burst capped a 54-yard scoring drive. The Wildkits were penalized twice inside the 10-yard line, but it didn’t matter when Nicholson tried a draw play on second and 15, dashed through the right side and broke a tackle at the 5.

Four plays later Mike Axelrood intercepted a pass and was knocked down just short of the goal line, setting up a short plunge for another Nicholson score. Axelrood and veteran defenders Trenton Bertrand and Gerrad Lamour all earned interceptions against Wheaton North junior quarterback Nathan Love, who completed 12-of-23 for 116 yards and also carried 17 times for 30 yards. He was sacked 3 times.

Wheaton North, a state playoff qualifier last year with a record of 8-3, countered with an 11-play, 58-yard scoring drive of its own late in the third quarter to make it a one possession game again. But the Wildkits established control  again, chewing up yardage and the clock until quarterback Ben Tarpey (14-of-22 for 125 yards) zipped a 12-yard scoring strike to sophomore tight end Zach Myers in a crowd in the end zone with only 28 ticks left on the clock.

Evanston drove 63 yards in 13 plays —10 of them carries by workhorse Nicholson — to seal the win on the junior’s 3-yard run with 6:11 left in the third quarter.

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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