No one wearing an Evanston uniform saw this one coming.

The Wildkits committed a shocking 5 turnovers Friday night in the opening round of the Class 8A Illinois High School Association state football playoffs and suffered another first-round exit, bowing to Edwardsville 44-27 at Lazier Field.

An opportunistic Tigers’ team returned 3 interceptions for touchdowns and also forced a pair of fumbles against a disappointed ETHS squad that rarely turned the ball over during the best regular season for the program in the past 20 years.

Evanston, the No. 10 seed in the 8A bracket, ended the season with a 7-3 record while the Tigers moved on with the same record. Besides those defensive scores, Edwardsville quarterback Kendall Abdur-Rahman did his best impersonation of Michael Vick, with touchdown runs of 53 and 77 yards. He finished with 201 yards on 14 attempts.  

Turnovers shoved the home team into an early 17-0 hole and there was no coming back against an Edwardsville team that reached the state semifinals a year ago.

“I’m stunned and I’m shocked like all of you guys,” said Evanston head coach Mike Burzawa in the team’s final post-game huddle of the season. “We didn’t expect this — and it hurts.

Quadre Nicholson of Evanston plows ahead for a first down during Friday’s 44-27 state playoff loss to Edwardsville.

“We didn’t get off to a good start and we had some things happen that were uncharacteristic of our team with those turnovers.  We didn’t come out and execute early on, and when we weren’t able to run the ball successfully, that made us one-dimensional and put a lot of pressure on Ben (senior quarterback Ben Tarpey) and the passing game.

“It’s a disappointing loss. We certainly didn’t plan to turn our gear in on Monday.”

Tarpey completed 18-of-43 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns, both to senior wide receiver Mike Axelrood. Tarpey became the first quarterback in ETHS history to pass for more than 2,000 yards in a single season, with a 10-game total of 2,027 that broke the previous mark of 1,982 by Marcus White in 1994.

Two of the interceptions he endured Friday night came on passes deflected by his own wide receivers. The senior QB also lost a fumble when he was sacked in the second quarter, with that turnover leading to a 6-yard TD run by Edwardsville’s Justin Johnson Jr. that made it 17-0 in the visitors’ favor.

Evanston’s Kameron Kull (right) and Quentin Ivory (72) team up to stop Edwardsville’s Justin Johnson Jr.

“Edwardsville is a very solid team,” said the senior signal-caller, whose 43 passing attempts are also a single game school record. “They’re really physical and they’re very disciplined in their coverages, too. But we made a lot of costly mistakes tonight. I’m just proud of the way we fought when we were knocked down tonight. We tried to fight right until the last second.”

Tarpey engineered a 13-play, 74 yard scoring drive that cut the deficit to 17-7 before halftime, with the ETHS score coming on a 2-yard plunge by junior Quadre Nicholson (26 carries, 91 yards, 2 TDs). A fumble recovery by Malik Ross gave the Kits another chance to score before kicker Caleb Hart missed a 37-yard field goal in the final seconds before halftime.

Abdur-Rahman’s 53-yard dash for a score and a pick six by Edwardsville teammate Dionte Rodgers, covering 22 yards, pushed the margin to 30-7 before the home crowd could even settle into their seats for the second half.

Nicholson tallied on a 1-yard plunge on the first play of the fourth quarter and Tarpey connected with Axelrood for scoring strikes of 14 and 8 yards before time ran out on Evanston’s 40 seniors, who were seeking the program’s first playoff win since the 2003 postseason.

Burzawa praised Tarpey’s contributions after he hardly took any snaps last season before replacing a 2-year starter in Drew Dawkins. Marathon film study sessions every weekend with assistant coach Ryan Healy helped Tarpey progress beyond anyone’s expectations.

“Our quarterback had a tremendous year, a tremendous career here,” Burzawa said. “We didn’t know what we had in that position coming into the season, and the way he developed was really unbelievable. We’ve been able to keep the quarterback clean (few sacks) all season, but Ben took some shots tonight. You have to give Edwardsville credit for creating those turnovers.

“This senior class did a heckuva job this season, and they brought me a lot of enjoyment as a coach, because they’re such a tight-knit group and because they worked so hard. The senior leadership we had was what made their brotherhood so special.”

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

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