PEORIA — Scoring 56 points in a state semifinal football game would sound great to any team.
Unless it was against Peoria.
The Lions scored a season-high 76 points and got five touchdown runs and 383 yards from senior running back Malachi Washington as they ran past Morris 76-56 in a wild Class 5A state semifinal on a frigid Saturday afternoon at Peoria Stadium.
It’s the sixth time this season Peoria (12-1) has scored over 60 points in a game. The Lions average just over 50 per game. Peoria will face Nazareth, a 10-7 winner over host Sycamore in the other semifinal, on Saturday at 10 a.m. for the state championship at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
Morris (10-3), which was making its first semifinal appearance since finishing second in the state in Class 4A in 2017, got four touchdown passes from junior Carter Button. Morris came in with a trio of shutouts on the season and allowed an average of 12.7 points per game, but the Lions scored 22 points in the final 3:27 of the first half to take a 46-14 halftime lead.
“Yes, if someone said we’d score 56 points, I think we’d be happy,” Morris coach Alan Thorson said. “But we look at the scoreboard at the end, and they had 20 more than that. Congrats to [Peoria head coach Tim] Thornton. They earned it. Our defense has been great. ... They got us into situations that we didn’t want to be in.
“Sure, we are disappointed, but I can’t be prouder of our guys. They kept fighting, and even though we were down by a lot, they believed in the second half.”
Trailing by 32 points at halftime, it would have been easy for Morris to mail it in. But that’s not what a program with only four losing seasons since 1977 does. So an onside kick to start the second half.
Button, who was 13 of 29 for 252 yards with four touchdowns and an interception, found senior Matt Stark on a 49-yard pass to the 1. Senior running back Ashton Yard (23 carries for 81 yards) took it in from there, and Morris made it 46-20 just 32 seconds into the second half.
Morris then recovered another onside kick, but had to punt. Senior running back Frank Odom (eight carries for 134 yards, two TDs) got free on the left side and went 67 yards for a touchdown, and it was 54-20 with 7:52 left in the third quarter.
But Button came back 52 seconds later with a 19-yard TD pass to senior Will Knapp. Then Button found junior A.J. Zweeres on an 8-yard touchdown pass. The 2-point conversion succeeded, and with 2:43 left in the third quarter, it was 54-34.
“We started a little slow but kept fighting,” Button said. “That’s all you can ask. We just had to go out and chip away, and we did. But [the Lions] are a really great team.
“Still this was one of the most fun seasons I’ve ever had. Just growing up, playing with these guys from the Morris Warriors until now. I will miss all of the seniors.”
Following a failed onside kick attempt, Peoria scored on the ensuing play from scrimmage. Junior quarterback Tino Gist fired a 49-yard touchdown pass to senior Ricky Hearn (four catches for 81 yards). That made it 60-34 at the end of the third quarter.
Knapp scored on a 6-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal, and with 7:47 left it was 60-42. But that was as close as it would get, as Washington — who finished with 30 carries — scored two more touchdowns on runs of 42 and 56 yards.
Still refusing to concede, Button hit Gage Phillips (four receptions for 95 yards) on a 27-yard touchdown. After Morris recovered an onside kick for the third time in the second half, Button added a 25-yard TD pass to Knapp (four receptions for 76 yards) with 2:17 to play to account for the final score.
The first big play of the game was made by Morris, as senior defensive back Matt Stark recovered a Washington fumble at the Peoria 28 just over two minutes into the game. Five plays later, on fourth-and-4, Zweeres (10 carries for 55 yards, three total TDs) scored on an 11-yard run with 7:55 left in the opening quarter. Button added the two-point run, and it was 8-0.
“I had forced that fumble, and I was pumped up to get that touchdown,” Zweeres said. “It was great, and I was confident, but they had some big runs.”
“We went three-and-out on our first possession, but then forced the turnover and scored,” Thorson said. “But they came right back. We didn’t want to get in a shootout with them.”
But that’s what happened.
Disaster hit Morris in the final moments of the half. First junior linebacker Gary Rutherford returned an interception 31 yards for a TD with 2:30 left. Then Morris fumbled the snap on a punt, and linebacker Kaleb Lawson had a scoop and score from 12 yards out with 1:07 left in the half to make it 46-14.
This was the 15th state semifinal appearance for Morris, which has played in 11 state title games, winning three. Even though it fell short of getting back to a state championship game, it was an excellent season, especially after last year’s disappointment of being undefeated before losing a second-round playoff game 28-24 to Morton.
“It all starts with the seniors, and we had a special group,” Thorson said. “The ending is not what we wanted, but I couldn’t be prouder of them and their effort this season.”
Zweeres felt the same.
“We got to practice this past week, and we all talked and said how awesome it was that we were one of the last four teams playing in the state in our class,” Zweeres said. “We all grew up playing with each other, and when we all got to high school we knew we could have something special.
“We had a special bond.”