Neuqua Valley’s Peyton Kuhl barely missed making a diving interception on Waubonsie Valley’s first offensive series Friday night.
The senior defensive back nearly came up with a pick on the second drive as well.
After the second near-miss, Kuhl started hearing it from his teammates.
“We definitely go back and forth on the sidelines,” defensive back Josh Friedman said. “I dropped one, too, and he came right back at me. It’s all right.”
Indeed, everything was copacetic on a night in which Neuqua Valley’s vaunted defense turned into its most impressive outing yet.
Friedman had an interception, defensive lineman Gabe Willis batted down a pass and tipped a couple of others, and the host Wildcats allowed just one first down in a 28-0 DuPage Valley Conference victory.
How dominant was Neuqua Valley’s defense? Waubonsie Valley was held to minus-30 yards of total offense.
“Negative yards is crazy,” Kuhl said. “That’s probably the best game we’ve ever played. Waubonsie is struggling, but it doesn’t matter. We had the same mentality going into this game — just play our hearts out.”
The Wildcats (6-1, 4-0) did that throughout, showing relentless resolve and pushing the Warriors (0-7, 0-4) backward on nearly every possession.
Waubonsie Valley quarterback Luke Elsea, who completed 2 of 15 passes for 5 yards, had no time to throw, and his running backs had no room to run.
“Our D-line, they were getting after the ball,” Friedman said. “They were getting a good push off the line, and then our linebackers, I’ve got faith that they’re going to be at the ball every single time.”
Throughout the first half, all 11 Neuqua Valley defenders lined up within 7 yards of the line of scrimmage, daring the warriors to throw.
After Silvano Spatafora, who rushed for 89 yards on 19 carries, scored a pair of short touchdown runs to give the Wildcats a 14-0 lead, Elsea had to throw and tried to beat the defense with a pop pass. But Friedman picked it off at Waubonsie Valley’s 22-yard line.
“We had a lot of momentum going into that,” Friedman said. “We had a lot of three-and-outs before that, so I don’t think that was a tone-setter.
“It was a testament to how the D-line and the linebackers were playing. I was just lucky to make a play.”
Even without the injured Justen Crawford, Neuqua Valley’s defensive line was dominant. The 5-foot-8 Willis was constantly in the backfield, at one point leaping up and batting down a pass like he was spiking a volleyball. He showed mock frustration after Friedman dropped a possible interception in the third quarter.
News updates from the Naperville area delivered every Monday and Wednesday
“Every single drop I was like, ‘You guys got to catch those,'” Willis said. “But how I think of it is, as long as (the receiver) didn’t catch the ball, that’s all that matters. I love our DBs for making all those plays.”
Meanwhile, Neuqua Valley’s offense methodically amassed 312 yards. Quarterback Ryan Mohler completed 17 of 26 passes for 175 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown to Grant Larkin, who caught 10 balls for 118 yards. Jaden McGee, in his second game back from injury, rushed 10 times for 58 yards and a score.
But all that was overshadowed by the historic performance of the defense.
“I don’t know if we’ve had a defense this dominant,” Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus said. “This is as dominating of a performance as I’ve ever seen, and it’s not just been this week. We dominate game after game after game.”
Willis attributes it to a killer mentality, while Kuhl marvels at the consistency.
“We all just bond, and everyone does their job,” Kuhl said. “It’s a special thing when we all play as a unit.”
Matt Le Cren is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.