EUREKA – The Eureka football team stayed within striking distance in the first half against Lakeland on Saturday, but things didn't go according to plan in the second.
The Muskies controlled the game on both sides of the ball in the second half and came away with a 45-16 victory over the Red Devils.
The win moved Lakeland to 7-1 on the season and 5-1 in Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference play ahead of next week's showdown against conference leader Aurora (6-2, 6-0 NACC). The Red Devils, meanwhile, fell to 2-7 on the season and 2-5 in NACC play.
Eureka junior Ben Bernabei (Peru, Ill./St. Bede Academy) rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries in his second game at tailback for the Red Devils. Quarterback Lukas Tinkham (Abingdon, Ill./Abingdon-Avon) threw for 189 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions on 17-of-31 passing.
Sebastian Hill (Pekin, Ill./Pekin) tallied 72 receiving yards on five catches, with a long of 38 yards. Pierce Bradford (Decatur, Ill./Argenta-Oreana) notched 60 receiving yards – including a 32-yard touchdown – on four receptions, while Gabe Newlin (Covington, Ind./Covington) and Malek Folston (Cocoa, Fla./Vera) added 29 yards on five catches and 28 on three, respectively.
Lakeland racked up 429 yards with a fairly balanced attack. Quarterback Charl'Tez Nunnery posted 290 passing yards and a pair of TDs and one interception on 14-for-30 passing, while running back Larry Rivers amassed 107 rushing yards and scored three times on 19 carries.
Receiver Brice Kensey finished with 155 receiving yards on a game-high eight catches.
Lakeland jumped out to a 14-0 lead early on, but the Red Devils found a way to punch back. After conceding a blocked punt with five minutes left in the first quarter, the defense came up with a stop, with Keegan Kerr's (White Heath, Ill./Monticello) fourth-down sack setting up the maroon and gold's first scoring drive.
Eureka took over at their own 34, then Bernabei rushed for seven yards, Tinkham found Hill for a 38-yard gain and a pass interference call moved the Red Devils to the one-yard line.
The Red Devils came up empty on their first three tries, but Bernabei rushed in for a 1-yard score on fourth down to make it 14-7.
Kerr and the defense stopped Lakeland's next drive as well, with Kerr batting down a Nunnery pass on third down to force a punt. However, the snap on the punt attempt sailed into the end zone for a Eureka safety to make it 14-9.
The Muskies executed a five-play, 64-yard scoring drive on its next possession to extend the lead to 11 points early in the second quarter.
Eureka answered with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that featured seven Bernabei runs, a 13-yard completion to Newlin and a 32-yard touchdown heave to Bradford, trimming the lead to five with 4:49 left.
Unfortunately for the Red Devils, that ended up being the team's last score.
Two long passes by Nunnery later, the Muskies were in the end zone again. After getting stopped by the Eureka defense on the next possession, Jayson Wilder picked off Tinkham with 10 seconds until halftime and Lakeland kicker Peyton Domangue promptly converted a 25-yard field goal before half in the last second to go into the locker room leading 31-16.
In the third quarter, the Red Devils just couldn't put it all together and capitalize on its opportunities.
When the defense came up with stops, the offense would struggle to move the ball, or the special teams unit would concede a blocked punt.
When the offense would successfully execute a play, the Lakeland defense would step up and get a big sack and quell the momentum.
After trading turnovers on downs, a sack and forced fumble by Amari Smith (Chicago, Ill./Hillcrest) and recovery by Bryson Smith (Cisco, Ill./Monticello) gave way to a touchdown on a blocked punt by Kobe Charles.
Charles finished with three blocked punts on the day, with his third setting up a short field for Lakeland's final touchdown of the game.
Rivers scored on a two-yard rush with 2:29 remaining in the third quarter, and it ended up being the game's last touchdown.
The Red Devils' leading tackler on the day was sophomore Austin Hopkins (Arcola, Ill./Arcola), who notched seven total tackles, with six solo efforts and one pass break-up.
Hopkins, Kerr, Jack Arnett (Princeton, Ill./Princeton), Xavier Smith (Chicago, Ill./Hubbard) and Kwentin Brookins (Gary, Ind./Westmont) each had a pass break-up. Brookins also came up with an interception late in the game.
Next Saturday, the Red Devils will return to McKinzie Field close out the 2021 season against St. Norbert, and honor their seniors. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.