Asked what it meant to win Homecoming for the first time in his varsity career, Red Devil defensive end Wade Barker — who came up big with a solo sack, as well as a share in two others — didn’t mince words.
“I’ve always dreamt of starting — and winning — a homecoming game, and on Friday that came true,” Barker said. “It was one of the most amazing feelings as a high school football player.”
Sitting on a 3-0 start heading into Friday’s matchup with Lander, the Evanston High School football team knew the game would be billed as their first true test of the season. The Tigers had a winning record, after all, something that couldn’t be said for the Red Devils’ first three opponents, as well as a legendary head coach in John Scott roaming the sidelines.
“You’re not gonna out-coach the guy,” EHS head coach Jim Burton said of Scott. “He’s been doing this a long time, and he knows his stuff. He’s a tough coach, and a class act.”
That said, the Red Devils did indeed get the job done, holding off a late charge by Lander to win 20-14. It was the first Homecoming win of the Jim Burton era, and gives Evanston a perfect 4-0 record heading into conference play next week.
“It means a lot — it’s my first Homecoming win as a head coach, so that’s obviously a big thing,” Burton said. “But it’s great for the whole school and the community — it’s a big upper for that Homecoming week.”
Quarterback and senior captain Jaxin Moore agreed.
“It felt amazing to get a homecoming win, especially after all of the hype leading up to the game,” he said. “This senior class has always stuck together and worked hard, and it’s finally starting to show on the field. I couldn’t be happier for all of those guys.”
Lander appeared to have the momentum early, taking the opening kickoff and driving deep into Evanston territory. But on a 3rd-and-5 from the Red Devils’ 12-yard line, Evanston’s Wade Barker sprinted into the backfield and sacked Lander quarterback Brenon Stauffenberg at the 21-yard line. Matisse Weaver’s 36-yard field goal attempt went wide, giving Evanston the ball.
The Red Devils’ first drive stalled at their own 45-yard line, though David Perez’s punt buried Lander deep in their own territory. With a 1st-and-10 on their own 4-yard line, the Tigers’ Stauffenberg lost the handle on the snap; an alert Peyton Cornia pounced on the loose ball, giving Evanston 1st-and-goal from the 4-yard line. Jaxin Moore scored on a quarterback keeper, and the Red Devils led 6-0.
“Jaxin has a knack for finding holes in defenses, then making good reads,” Burton said. “Again, that’s something he’s worked on for a long time. He’s been with me since middle school, so he’s another kid that’s put in the time and the work, and now he’s reaping those rewards.”
Evanston’s defense continued to play strong, forcing a punt on Lander’s next possession. Moore and the offense set up shop on the Tigers’ 49-yard line, and on the first play from scrimmage, Moore handed off to Perez, who found a seam and scampered 49 yards for the score. Dylan Liechty’s extra point made it 13-0 Red Devils, with 11 minutes left in the half.
Evanston’s defense again forced a punt, and the Red Devils began their next drive at their own 32. Moore drove the offense down to the Lander 14, where Evanston running back Quinton Elmer appeared to score a touchdown on a 14-yard run, though the ball was knocked out of his hands as he crossed the plane. The referees ruled it a fumble, and instead of increasing their lead to 19-0, Evanston instead had to bring their defense out on the field, as Lander was given the ball at the 20-yard line.
Taking advantage of the momentum created by the questionable call, Lander marched down to the Evanston 20-yard line, where the drive stalled. Weaver missed his second field goal attempt of the game, and the half ended with the Red Devils still leading 13-0.
Evanston was forced to punt to start the second half, giving the Tigers a short field at their own 45. Lander scored a few plays later, when Stauffenberg hit Gabe Harris for a 30-yard touchdown; Weaver hit the extra point, and the Red Devils’ lead was cut to 13-7.
A nice return by Perez on the ensuing kickoff gave the Red Devils good field position at their own 35. Nice runs by Perez, Moore and Vernon brought Evanston down inside the 10-yard line; the drive culminated in a 6-yard touchdown by Perez, his second of the game. Liechty’s extra point made it 20-7, with just over four minutes left in the third quarter.
The Red Devils’ defense forced yet another punt on Lander’s subsequent drive, giving Evanston 1st-and-10 on their own 43. The Red Devils drove into Lander territory, and on 1st-and-10 from the Tigers’ 46, Moore handed off to Peyton Vernon, who was met at the line of scrimmage by Lander’s Jonah Brown. Brown got the worse end of the deal, as Vernon showed impressive athleticism for a big gman, trucking Brown, then leaping over him for a 3-yard gain; Brown was slow to get up after the collision. Friday’s game marked Vernon’s first action of the season, and the senior made the most of his opportunity.
“It was my first game back from a long-lasting injury, and it felt amazing,” he said. “I have all the gear I need to keep me healthy this year, and I feel more mobile than ever.”
Evanston’s drive rolled over into the start of the fourth quarter, but ended on yet another controversial fumble call, this time by Kai Barker. The turnover gave Lander the ball on their own 21, and with momentum back in their hands, the Tigers drove into Red Devils’ territory. Evanston’s defense again proved up to the task, forcing a turnover on downs with 6:45 to play in regulation.
Lander scored with less than two minutes to play, a 1-yard run by Stauffenberg. But that’s as close as the Tigers would get, as the Red Devils ran out the clock on their next possession, securing the 20-14 win.
Moore called the win a team effort, with big plays on both sides of the ball.
“I think the difference in the game was really our defense, our young sophomore linebackers really stepped up and were flying around the field all day,” he said. “Along with the defense, our offensive line and wide receivers were really able to control the line of scrimmage for most of the game. I don’t think our wide receivers get enough credit for the dirty work they do for our offense.”
The Red Devils finished with 325 total yards, 270 on the ground. Perez led the charge with 90 yards on seven carries, and two touchdowns. Moore followed with 73 yards and a touchdown, while Knight tallied go yards on 12 carries. Vernon finished with 39 yards on eight carries.
“We played so well because of our line — they had an amazing game,” Vernon said. “They opened up every hole for us running backs to sneak through. Their blocks were amazing...we have a lot of talent on our team in every position.”
Burton agreed, calling Vernon a “special talent.”
“As long as we can keep him healthy, Vernon’s gonna be a big part of what we do,” Burton said. “It’s nice to be able to spread it around.”
Defensively, the Red Devils were in Stauffenberg’s face all day, with Wade Barker, Peyton Cornia, Payt Burton, Kody Rex and Blake Ross combining for four sacks; Cornia also had a tipped pass and a fumble recovery.
“That D-line got better as the game progressed,” Burton explained. “Early on, I think we were running upfield a little bit. But they started running their lanes, and we were getting sacks. Wade Barker had a great game, and Peyton Cornia had two pass deflections. Everybody kinda got in on it. When those guys are disciplined and do their job, they’re tough to beat.”
Knight and Kai Barker led the team in defensive points, with 16 apiece; Cornia finished with 13.5 points. Wade Barker, Brady Roberts and Cohen Morrow collected 10 defensive points each.
The Red Devils will open conference play this Friday, on the road at Green River. It’s also the Wolves’ Homecoming game, so Moore said they’ll be ready to play.
“As for Green River, we know that they are going to be ready to go,” he said. “We are very familiar with them, and it has always been a close game. After our game last year against them [a 23-20 loss for Evanston], we want this game a little more than usual.”
Wade Barker agreed, saying the red Devils’ remaining schedule is not for the faint of heart.
“To maintain this momentum we have going, we must remember that the teams only get better from here,” he said. “We must continue to work hard if we want to win. We can’t slow down now that we are ahead.”