MOUNT CARMEL -- Kaleb Applebey to Beau Stipp was a connection often called upon on Saturday in Mount Carmel's opening round playoff matchup against Carlinville.
The two juniors connected for three touchdowns in Saturday's contest, leading the Aces to a 35-7 blowout of the Cavaliers in the opening round of the IHSA 3A Football Playoffs.
Though there was plenty to be joyous about postgame, Mount Carmel's start couldn't have been any worse. The Aces fumbled the ball on their third play from scrimmage, giving the Cavaliers the ball at the Mount Carmel 33-yard line.
But just as they have all year, the Aces (9-1) defense rose to the occasion and held strong, forcing the Cavaliers (6-4) to turn it over on downs just outside the red zone.
The two teams traded a pair of punts until Mount Carmel was presented with their best drive yet with just seconds remaining in the first quarter.
Applebey had given the Aces tremendous field position after a 26-yard keeper rush, putting Mount Carmel into Carlinville territory. The Cavaliers defense held strong the next few plays however and forced the Aces to a fourth-and-10 from the 38-yard line.
Mount Carmel Head Football Coach Michael Brewer called a timeout to talk it over, but opted to send out his offense to go for it.
The Cavaliers had been so intent on preventing sophomore back Zeke Hadra from beating them that they allowed Stipp to break free for a 38-yard receiving touchdown from Applebey. Not a defender was within 10 yards of Stipp, who easily raced to the end zone as time expired in the first quarter.
Carlinville was forced to punt once again, putting the ball back in the hands of the Aces offense. Applebey connected with senior wide receiver Satchel Patberg on a great catch and an even better ball by Applebey for 31 yards, which set up an Applebey 59-yard scramble score just a play later.
Aces sophomore defensive back Zach Allen stalled Carlinville's next drive with an interception, putting the Cavaliers in an extremely bad spot. Playing from behind in a run-heavy offense and momentum continuously building for the Aces, it certainly didn't bode well for Carlinville.
Applebey connected with Stipp a couple times on the ensuing drive, a pair of catches that totaled for 34 yards and what seemed to be a touchdown by Stipp, who extended the ball past the goal line as he was being tackled, but was ruled down at the 1-yard line.
Hadra punched it in a couple plays later on a rushing score, putting the Aces ahead 21-0.
After Carlinville had another drive stall in its tracks, the Aces aggressively decided to attempt to tack on another score prior to the conclusion of the half.
Applebey kept the first play of the drive for 31 yards, then connected with Stipp just two plays later for his third touchdown of the half, this one a 47-yard score.
Now ahead 28-0, Mount Carmel was in exceptional position entering the half.
Continuing his exceptional performance in the second half, Applebey connected with his favorite target once again. He tossed it out to Stipp on a screen, with the junior playmaker exploding for a 37-yard score. The score gave Applebey his fourth total of the game and Stipp's third receiving score, Stipp's third three-touchdown performance of the season.
Carlinville would at last score midway through the fourth, but the game was all but over.
Though the Aces have a plethora of upperclassmen leaders who all contribute, they didn't have any postseason experience. To perform as well as they did in their opener, it had to be an exceptional feeling for Brewer. It almost felt as if the game may have been Mount Carmel's best game of the season -- a tremendous development as the season wanes.
All the talk leading into the week was how the Aces defense would handle the imposing Cavalier rush attack, an offense that averaged 326.8 rush yards per contest and featured senior Colton DeLong, who entered the contest averaging 7.5 yards per rush and having scored 22 touchdowns on the season.
Impressively, the Aces held DeLong to just 4.4 yards per rush and the Cavaliers entire rush offense to just 3.7 yards per rush (170 total yards) in the game. The Aces also secured a pair of interceptions in the game, one by Allen, the other by Gill, and held the Cavaliers passing attack to just 21 yards.
If their defense can continue to replicate such steady, stout play, watch out.
"I was really proud of the way our kids tackled and the way they kept coming," Brewer said. "You could see a little bit in the second half how they wear teams down a little bit, so it was nice that we had the points on the scoreboard and kind of hung tough. We tackled well, got to the ball, I was happy with the way we got to the football and just how we played overall on defense."
Offensively Applebey ended with 330 total yards, 218 passing, 112 on the ground in what was his best performance of the season. He connected with Stipp five times for 157 yards, with Stipp scoring three times.
Applebey's four touchdown performance is another great sign for the Aces. Such versatility offensively could open up the Aces' playbook and allow more running lanes for Hadra, who was often shadowed by multiple defenders on Saturday. And when Applebey's in a rhythm like he was on Saturday, he can be tough to stop .
"It's a good time for him to be playing his best football for sure, he played well tonight," Brewer spoke of Applebey. "Just talked to him a little bit between series he was dialed in, knew what he needed to do. I thought he had a great game, running the ball, throwing the ball, doing all of the things that he needed to do. Proud of Kaleb, he played well."
With the victory the Aces advance on to the second round of the IHSA 3A Football Playoffs, where they'll travel to face undefeated Vandalia. The Vandals (10-0) squeaked out a 7-0 victory over North Mac in their opening round matchup.
Brewer professed to know little about the Vandals, but believes they'll have a balanced offense. Defensively they appear to be stout as well, having held six opponents to seven or fewer points this season. The one common opponent between the two schools -- Carlinville -- when the Vandals defeated the Cavaliers 48-7 back on Sept. 6.
"I know they're a common opponent that Carlinville had. Vandalia was 9-0 I think, won that conference. They'll definitely be a tough test. From what I heard [they'll be] a balanced offense, can throw the ball around so they'll be a good test for us. Hopefully we can keep playing this kind of defense though."
Saturday's contest against the Vandals will begin with a 2 p.m. kickoff.
C -- 0 0 0 7 -- 7
MC -- 7 21 7 0 -- 35
1Q: (MC) Applebey 38-yard pass to Stipp (Loudermilk kick) 7-0 MC.
2Q: (MC) Applebey 59-yard run (Loudermilk kick) 14-0 MC.
(MC) Hadra 2-yard run (Loudermilk kick) 21-0 MC.
(MC) Applebey 47-yard pass to Stipp (Loudermilk kick) 28-0 MC.
3Q: (MC) Applebey 37-yard pass to Stipp (Loudermilk kick) 35-0 MC.
4Q: DeLong 1-yard run (Rosentreter kick) 35-7 MC.