GIBSON CITY — For the second time in as many weeks, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley head coach Mike Allen and his team turned a first-half barnburner into a second-half shutout and blowout victory.
The Falcons extended their winning streak to 30 and improved to 2-0 overall, and 1-0 in the Heart of Illinois Conference Large Division, by defeating Eureka 35-10. They haven’t lost a conference game since 2014 at Fieldcrest.
There was a little tension in the crisp, nearly fall air on Friday when these teams were warming up. Eureka came in as the No. 2-ranked team in 3A football, largely due to returning their quarterback, running back and entire line from the previous season, in which they lost only one regular-season contest — to the Falcons in week two. The Falcons retained their No. 1 ranking in 2A and their 29-game winning streak by defeating cross-county rival Paxton-Buckley-Loda in week one.
Between the revenge factor, returning their core and their impressive, lofty ranking, it became clear coach Allen had his work cut out for him. The Falcons lost a ton of talent to graduation last season, and this game put their mettle to the test.
The Falcons scored first and fast, with sophomore Aidan Laughery bursting up the left sideline for a 60 yard touchdown. GCMS quarterback Cade Elliott showed great awareness on the play, which was designed to go towards the right side of the field.
Elliott handed the ball off, realized Laughery was changing direction and proceeded to lead block for his running back, leaving him with only one player to toast on his way to the end zone. Daniel Jones tacked on the extra point to give the Falcons a 7-0 lead.
On the ensuing drive, the Hornets added to the excitement. On second down, Eureka quarterback Matt Martin nearly scrambled for a touchdown, going 48 yards up the middle before being brought down by the last man to beat — in this case, Laughery.
Two plays later, Keegan Kutemeier snuffed out the designed quarterback keeper and made a stop for the Falcons. On fourth-and-goal from about the 5-yard line, Eureka head coach Jason Bachman elected to kick and come away with some points to show for his team's drive.
Senior kicker Cade Gold split the uprights on a 22-yard field goal, making the score 7-3 with 4:10 left in the first quarter.
It did not take long for the Falcons to answer. The Hornets kicked the ball to the 7-yard line, where it was caught by Laughery.
He sprinted up the middle and turned left at about the 30-yard line, soaring all the way up the field for a touchdown and leaving a handful of defenders in his wake. The gut-punching score put the Falcons up 14-3 in a matter of seconds.
The Hornets came out in shotgun formation, as they had all night up to this point. After moving the chains once, Eureka faced a fourth-and-5 from the Falcon 38-yard line.
Martin stayed on the field and looked for the play call from his coach. After the snap, he pump faked left and threw deep down the right sideline into double coverage.
It did not matter that there were two Falcons there as 6-foot-5 Reuben Roberts high-pointed the ball and secured the first down with a 20-yard catch. On the next play, Martin scrambled up the middle for 18 yards and shed a tackle on his way to paydirt.
The extra point by Gold cut Eureka's deficit to 14-10 after one quarter, but Eureka had stolen all the momentum with their back-to-back huge plays.
Defense reigned supreme for the rest of the first half.
The Hornets (1-1, 0-1) were moving the chains and knocking on the door in their last drive before the break, thanks to Hunter Gladson getting some nice yards after catch on a screen to the right side of the field for 19 yards. After an incomplete pass and two quarterback scrambles to keep the clock running, the Hornets faced fourth-and-goal from about the 2-yard line.
Martin sent a receiver in motion from the left and handed him the ball after the snap. GCMS's Isaiah Chatman recognized the play and met Hornets receiver Ryan Mahaffy behind the line of scrimmage, bringing him down in the open field by himself and saving a touchdown.
The Falcons had less than a hundred ticks on the clock, but Laughery is a threat for a house call whenever he touches it. The Hornets knew this, too, and met him with multiple defenders on his first two carries. Senior fullback Payton Kean burst up the middle for 35 yards and got out of bounds to stop the clock.
A couple of short runs later, coach Allen called his final first-half timeout with four seconds on the clock. Cade Elliott ran out left before launching a bomb downfield that fell incomplete.
The Falcons took their 14-10 lead into halftime. A team that had only given up 12 points, at most, in a game during the regular season last year had now given up 10 in the first quarter.
It appeared they were going to see the dog fight we expected, and the streak was on the line.
That did not last too long, though, as Laughery scorched the Hornets defense again, this time to the tune of 74 yards. The Falcon halfback started running left before waiting for his blocks to develop, and then cut back up the middle, forcing one defender to miss and outrunning the rest on his way for the score.
Eureka did block the kick, however, but the touchdown extended GCMS's lead to 20-10.
The teams traded punts before the Hornets' make-or-break drive.
On second down, Martin dropped back and flung a pass deep down the right sideline. The Hornet receiver had a step or two on his defender, but the throw was a tad behind him. Junior defensive back Nathan Kallal corralled the throw with his outstretched hands over his shoulder for an interception.
Falcon quarterback Cade Elliott refused to waste their great field position, achieving two first downs on the drive. On third-and-10, he rolled left and lasered only his third pass of the game to senior Colby Taylor for 14 yards.
After three carries from Kean totaling nine yards, GCMS faced a fourth-and-1. Elliott kept the ball on a designed run and stumbled into some Hornets, but and fell forward enough to move the chains on a second effort.
After a holding call moved the Falcons back some yards, Laughery carried the ball on a sweep and burst through a hoard of Hornets, stretching the ball across the plane as he went down. The 6-yard touchdown would be his only score from less than 50 yards away.
Laughery finished off the drive by catching an out pass from Elliott for the successful 2-point conversion. GCMS now comfortably led 28-10, with 20 seconds left in the third quarter.
The fourth quarter began, and Bachman’s team needed three scores to comeback. Martin started airing the ball out even more, although they had been using four receiver sets all night long.
Martin dodged two near sacks before tossing up a ball that was hauled in by Aden Sears and brought the Hornets to their opponent's 40 yard line.
On the next play, Jett Bachman caught a short slant and started running upfield before fumbling the football as he went down. The Falcons fell on it and took over possession.
Eureka’s defense stepped up, forcing a three-and-out. The punt, from GCMS’ backup punter, bounced to the 13-yard line, and a Hornets’ holding penalty moved the ball back to the 7-yard line.
Backed up, Bachman made the catch of the night with a one-handed grab on a ball that seemed well over his head for 28 yards.
The drive stalled after the relentless pressure from the Falcons finally culminated in a sack for Chatman. Coach Bachman elected to punt on fourth-and-20 from midfield with seven minutes remaining in the game.
Kean and Laughery traded carries for chunk yardage before the latter broke one off. Again, Laughery made the other 21 players look like they were in slow motion as he raced 53 yards for the score.
All night long, Laughery’s vertical speed allowed him to run past countless defenders who had textbook tackling angles. The extra point by Daniel Jones pushes the score to 35-10 with 3:10 left.
The Hornets had one final drive to put some points on the board, something they had not done since the first quarter.
Martin and company had reached a little past midfield when they called their last timeout with 17 seconds left. Martin rolled right and tossed a pass deep towards the right side of the end zone.
Two Falcons and one Hornet went up, but Laughery came down with the interception in the end zone, ultimately ending the game.
Laughery and coach Allen both heavily praised the line after the game. They dominated on both sides of the ball. When asked what changes were made at half, Allen said, “We just needed to make a few adjustments, change some blocking assignments. Making sure we get pressure on the quarterback, and breaking up the passes when we can.”
The Falcons did just that. Matt Martin took a beating all night long and finished 9-for-21 with two interceptions and 127 yards. He picked up 103 yards on the ground and ran in the lone Eureka touchdown.
The pressure GCMS put on Martin, notably from Chatman, made it tough to be patient and wait for receiving routes to develop. Thus, his throws were rushed and he had to scramble more than intended.
Laughery naturally paced all rushers with 223 yards and 4 touchdowns. He scored all 5 Falcon touchdowns, including the 93 yard kick return. Payton Kean also added 74 yards on 14 carries.
Coach Allen likes the 1-2 punch they have with their running backs. With the speed of Laughery and the powerful 200-pound Kean, GCMS seems to have bottled lightning and thunder for good measure.
As for the Eureka skills players; Gladson had 55 yards rushing; Jett Bachman tallied 38 yards receiving; Aiden Sears and Reuben Roberts added 33 and 32 yards receiving respectively.
On defense, Chapman led the way with eight tackles, two of them behind the line of scrimmage. Kutemeier also added eight tackles and was breaking up passes all night long. Daniel Jones and Laughery did their part in coverage as well.
The Falcons travel to Heyworth next week for non-divisional showdown.
When asked about the quality of his next opponent, Coach Allen quickly replied, “They’re all good ones in this conference.”