By Matt Le Cren
For the Bugle
Benet quarterback Jack Sznajder said he will never forget his 18th birthday.
That’s because Sznajder and his teammates had more to celebrate than just his milestone birthday.
Sznajder completed 26 of 36 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown and Benet’s defense did not allow a point Saturday night as the visiting Redwings upset undefeated Rolling Meadows 15-8 in a Class 7A quarterfinal.
Benet (10-2) will host East St. Louis (12-0) in the semifinals next Saturday at Benedictine University in Lisle.
The Redwings scored the only offensive touchdown when Sznajder found a wide-open Marty Dosen on 20-yard pass up the left sideline at the 5:31 mark of the second quarter to give Benet a 7-0 lead.
“It was a designed wheel route and Marty ran it perfectly,” Sznajder said. “He kind of stopped for a little bit so he could shake off a defender and just made a great play, got wide open.”
Sznajder had no trouble finding open receivers, but they weren’t all wearing friendly uniforms. He tossed three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and Benet made four turnovers overall.
“If we have any chance of winning next week we’ve got to fix that, that’s for sure,” Benet coach Pat New said.
The Redwings led 10-0 when Rolling Meadows linebacker Kevin Haltman picked off Sznajder and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown. The two-point conversion run was good and the Mustangs (11-1) were within 10-8 with 1:11 left in the third quarter.
Haltman then sacked Sznajder on the first play of the ensuing possession, which ended in a three-and-out. Suddenly, the momentum had swung.
But not for long. Brian Uhlir’s 60-yard punt pinned the Mustangs at their own 2-yard line. Three plays later, Benet’s Brett Kerger sacked Rolling Meadows quarterback Asher O’Hara in the end zone for a safety.
“We had a stunt on and my defensive tackle got me free,” Kerger said of his first varsity safety. “He cleared the guard and the center out and I just came in and made the play.”
Benet’s defense made a lot of plays. The Mustangs came in averaging almost 40 points per game but mustered only 204 yards of offense as the Redwings shut down their running game.
“I think we were kind of nervous coming out of the gates and then we kind of settled down,” Kerger said. “We’ve faced a lot of triple options teams this year. We had everybody assigned to somebody and we took care of business.”
Did they ever. The Mustangs had three drives snuffed out in the red zone, including one that started at the Benet 25 after a Sznajder interception.
That particular opportunity ended when safety Danny O’Malley picked off a pass in the end zone.
O’Malley made a second interception in fourth quarter and returned it 20 yards to the Rolling Meadows 10. That set up Victor Karam’s second field goal of the game, a 25-yarder that finished the scoring with 6:17 remaining.
“We knew that (the Mustangs were good),” O’Malley said. “Our D-line played amazing, our linebackers played even better and we just forced them to pass, and then made plays.
“They were mainly a running team so we focused on the run. We all have assignments and we all play assignment football.
While Rolling Meadows fans were left in stunned silence at Benet’s defensive performance, Sznajder has seen it before.
“Doesn’t surprise me,” Sznajder said. “I’d say this is the best defense in the state. They make plays all over the ball and they’re relentless.”
So was Sznajder, who kept tossing the ball even after the pick-6.
“You can never get down on yourself, no matter what’s happening in the game,” he said. “You’ve just got to have faith in yourself and your teammates and we did a great job of that.
“It just shows that we play through adversity. Our guys, no matter what happens, we’re not going to get down on ourselves. We just have faith in ourselves that we can make plays all game long.”
Now the Redwings are in the state semifinals for the second time in five seasons and third time in school history. They will be decided underdogs against East St. Louis, but they were against Rolling Meadows.
“We’re excited for the challenge,” Kerger said. “We keep getting better so hopefully we’ll be able to elevate to their play, because they’re pretty good.”