Luther Burden leads East St. Louis past Crete-Monee, into Class 6A title game

East St. Louis' Luther Burden III pulls in a pass for a touchdown against Crete-Monee in the Class 6A semifinal game at Crete-Money High School. Saturday, Nov.20, 2021 in Crete.

CRETE – Memo to Cary-Grove, and the Southeastern Conference: Look out for Luther Burden III.

The Missouri-committed senior from East St. Louis enhanced his legend in Saturday’s 54-13 Class 6A semifinal rout of Crete-Monee. He ran back a pair of punts for touchdowns, his 13th and 14th such excursions of the season. More than that, even though he caught only one pass, he was thoroughly in the minds of the Warriors from start to finish.

Their defense concentrated on him and left his fellow Flyers free to, well, fly. They did, piling up 343 yards in offense in a game that went from competitive in the first quarter to a running clock with 9:26 to play.

“I didn’t want to come out here and have this as my last football game before college,” Burden said. “I just came out and put my team on my back and carried us through the first half so we could get back to the state championship.”

The fourth-seeded Flyers (11-2) meet Cary-Grove (13-0) in next Saturday’s 6A championship in DeKalb. Cary-Grove, top-seeded in its half of the bracket, swamped Lake Forest, 40-7. East St. Louis thus returns to Huskie Stadium two years after its title triumph over Prairie Ridge.

Not for the first time this season, Burden was the difference. His 91-yard punt return late in the first quarter, a jaunt to the left in which he never reached full speed, gave the Flyers a 6-0 lead.

“I just knew I had to give us a jump,” Burden said. “The offense came out slow. The guys look up to me, so I gave us a spark.”

What did Burden see to carve through the Warriors?

“I just needed the ball and some space,” Burden said.

His 75-yard punt return came with 4:22 left in the second quarter. Burden fielded Josh Franklin’s punt on one hop, cut to the left after nearly being tackled, and was convoyed down the sideline. The two-point conversion made it 20-7.

“I just had to follow my blockers,” Burden said.

The Warriors (9-4) and Flyers traded touchdowns between those outbursts, and East St. Louis added another in the last minute of the half, a 1-yard plunge by freshman Trayan Martin for a 26-7 halftime margin.

Martin, a freshman with senior savvy, ran 16 times for 142 yards. Like Lemont last week, Crete-Monee had no answer for the Flyers’ potent weapons.

The Warriors, a quick team that relies on deception to spring Franklin, the quarterback, and cohorts Terry Elias and Johnny Evans, couldn’t use their bag of tricks against the savvy and bigger Flyers. It was thanks to great individual efforts that Crete-Monee piled up 169 yards amidst a series of drives that went nowhere. Even the 14 penalties for 121 yards the Flyers piled up didn’t help much.

“Sometimes we get a little bit undisciplined,” Martin said. “We’ve got to progress as the game goes on.”

Elias and Evans each scored a touchdown, but Franklin was only 4-of-17 passing and was sacked four times. It was a tough day in his office.

“I really couldn’t tell you what they did, honestly,” Franklin said. “At the end of the day, they had a good game. And (Burden), he’s a pretty good player. Their punt team held the line and blocked for him.”