ROCHELLE — Senior lineman TJ McMillen motioned under center and took a goal-line snap for a 1-yard touchdown plunge as No. 3 seed St. Francis battled No. 7 seed Rochelle in the quarterfinal round of the IHSA Class 4A playoffs on a cold and snowy Saturday afternoon.
The big-man score was one of five unanswered touchdowns for the Spartans, who overcame a first-quarter deficit to beat the Hubs 35-16 and clinch their first berth in the state semifinals since 2014. St. Francis (11-1) will face No. 13 seed Providence Catholic, which knocked off the No. 1 Richmond-Burton on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s an amazing feeling to finally get out of the quarterfinal round,” McMillen said. “We’re looking forward to being back in our hometown for the semifinals. ... We went over that goal-line formation earlier this week and I asked our coach if we could try the play out. It’s something I came up with during the week and it was exciting that we ran one of my plays this week.”
St. Francis hadn’t allowed a touchdown this postseason until Rochelle (9-3) struck late in the first quarter, when fullback Erich Metzger capped off a 13-play, 80-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run on fourth down. The Hubs melted over nine minutes off the clock, but the Spartans needed only one play to score, with running back Amari Head breaking outside for a 61-yard touchdown rush on the team’s first offensive play.
Rochelle led 8-6 after breaking up the 2-point conversion attempt from quarterback Alessio Milivojevic. The Spartan defense responded on the next offensive series from the Hubs, forcing Rochelle into two fourth-down rushing attempts and stopping the second attempt short to regain possession near midfield. A 22-yard completion from Milivojevic to Liam Kolinski led to an 11-yard touchdown run from Brady Piper, who rushed for 78 yards and three scores in the win.
“We wanted to make them run the ball from side to side,” McMillen said. “We knew they were a downhill running football team, but if we could make them run from side to side, we knew we could shut them down. We filled in our gaps after that first drive and we shut them down.”
St. Francis took a 12-8 lead, which remained at the half after a Spartan drive toward the end of the second quarter was stymied by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a sack by Rochelle defensive lineman Kaiden Morris. Penalties continued to hurt St. Francis in the third quarter, where a hold and an illegal block doomed the team’s opening drive of the second half.
The Spartan defense answered the call once again, though, stopping Rochelle’s leading rusher, Garrett Gensler, on a fourth-and-6 attempt to take the ball back. The Spartans, who held the NIU recruit Gensler to 20 yards on 15 carries, went ahead 20-8 after the Illinois recruit McMillen’s 1-yard surge and a 2-point conversion from Kent State recruit Dash Dorsey.
“We got on each other at halftime because we felt that we should’ve been able to move their guys around on every snap,” McMillen said. “Our offensive line bought into that and we started playing downhill football during the second half. We were hard to stop from that point on.”
A bad exchange led to a fumble by the Hubs near the end of the third quarter. St. Francis took advantage of Rochelle’s only turnover, scoring on a 5-yard touchdown run and a 2-point conversion from Piper to take a 28-8 lead. Piper sealed the Spartan victory midway through the fourth quarter, running in a 3-yard touchdown while Cooper Winslow booted the extra point.
Rochelle wingback Trey Taft was the last player to score on Saturday, escaping St. Francis defenders for a 67-yard touchdown burst down the home sideline. Head finished with 77 rushing yards for the Spartans, while Milivojevic completed 8-of-14 passes for 119 yards in the win. Three players including McMillen, Anthony Suriano and Danny French recorded sacks.
“Playing at home will be a big factor for us and it’s something we’re really looking forward to,” McMillen said. “Every team dreams of playing a game at home right before the state championship and we’re going to have a tough team in Providence Catholic coming to us.”