Atypical flaws sting Wildcats

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Jasper’s Scott Stallwood, left, Cole Kreilein and Dylan Persohn listened to their coaches in the locker room after a Friday’s first half at Mount Carmel. After rallying to tie from a two-score deficit in the first half, the Wildcats were shut out the rest of the way in a 27-14 loss. For a gallery of photos, click here.

Herald Sports Editor

MOUNT CARMEL, Ill. — The trudge up the 122 steps from field level to the top of Mount Carmel’s Snake Pit had an air of penance for the Jasper football team.

After absorbing their first conference defeat in exactly two years Friday night, the Wildcats marched single file up the stairs of the sunken stadium. A hush of silence accompanied the procession.

“Have a nice, long walk up there,” a Jasper assistant coach told them prior to starting the climb.

The postgame discourse wasn’t what the Wildcats are used to.

Jasper stuttered to a 27-14 setback at Riverview Stadium in a trip across the Wabash River in which the Class 4A No. 2 Wildcats never felt like themselves. Outside of scoring on back-to-back drives in the first half, their offense averaging north of 40 points per game rarely flickered beyond that. The defense, besieged early by Mount Carmel quarterback Reece Metcalf, struggled to contain a pass-and-smash combo the Golden Aces executed freely. The common thread among the deficiencies was practically a consensus among the Cats: They got out-toughed.

All of it left Jasper without much good to say about a Friday night gone sour.

“We didn’t show up to play, and that team played much harder than we did, and they deserved to win, and we deserved our rear ends kicked. We need to go home and figure out what kind of team we want to be,” Jasper coach Tony Ahrens said.

“That team challenged us, and we thought it was going to be a piece of cake. They didn’t respond, so therefore we took a royal rear-kicking.”

Mount Carmel (6-0, 4-0 Big Eight Conference), ranked fifth in Illinois’ Class 3A, didn’t waste any time administering it.

Metcalf gashed the Wildcat defense for 10 completions in the first quarter alone, and Jasper’s first defensive possession included an ominous tone as a defensive back slipped trying to track a receiver near the goal line. Metcalf followed that 20-yard touchdown pass to Caleb Kline by linking with Levi Laws on a 59-yard catch-and-run for a 14-0 edge.

Beyond the first quarter, Metcalf completed a modest six passes. But he still finished 16-of-26 for 240 yards, and the Golden Aces’ diversified pass playbook netted dividends before they flipped to a smashmouth approach after halftime to shield a lead.

“Our defense looked like they never practiced a day in our life,” Ahrens lamented. “Our secondary guys didn’t defend, our pass rush didn’t go. We’ve got to learn from this. We’ve got to learn from it and grow up and learn how to become a tough team.”

“We were switching a lot between a lot of different defenses and they would run (out routes) and then sometimes slants or fades and we just got mixed up,” added Wildcat senior safety Courtland Betz.

“We’re better than that, and we’re going to learn from our mistakes and just do better.”

The Cats (6-1, 3-1) did steady themselves momentarily in the first half, as Ian Songer’s 1-yard plunge kinged a 67-yard scoring drive, and a 91-yard march culminated with Nick Hale’s 5-yard scoring run.

Jasper’s Nolan Ahrens passed for 211 yards, completing 19-of-27 tries and targeting Zach Wood on eight receptions worth 134 yards. But most of the night, uncommon gaffes undercut the Cats’ progress.

A Jasper fumble cleared the way for Mount Carmel’s tiebreaking score with 1:07 remaining before halftime, as Metcalf winged the last of his three TD strikes. On the Cats’ first three series of the second half, they fumbled at Mount Carmel’s 13-yard line, came a yard short on fourth down when Nolan Ahrens completed a pass after a fake punt, and then wobbled a punt that traveled 12 yards. With prime field position and just 33 yards to travel, the Aces hiked their lead to 27-14 on Metcalf’s 2-yard run.

With a midfield fourth-down incompletion and an interception in the fourth quarter, Jasper couldn’t cobble together any semblance of a rally. Some of the hiccups were the most elementary, the Cats acknowledged.

On Mount Carmel’s go-ahead scoring drive, the Aces were set to punt twice before successive encroachment penalties by Jasper gifted Mount Carmel a first down. When the Aces tacked on their last touchdown, Jasper bit hard on a fake handoff twice in three plays, allowing Metcalf with plenty of room to maneuver.

“We shot ourselves in the foot so many times tonight by simple things: simple fundamental football things: Jumping offsides, turning the ball over, not holding onto the ball, not catching the ball,” said Tony Ahrens, whose team will visit Washington (0-7, 0-5) next Friday.

“Just our toughness of playing just wasn’t there. We just did things that aren’t typical of how we play. That’s a mental makeup. That’s your mental set and how you approach the game.”
That’ll be addressed soon, Ahrens promised.

“I’d say that there will be some confronting moments for our kids,” he said of what to expect when the Cats return to practice next week.

Jasper was spared further damage thanks to two red-zone denials of Mount Carmel, including one where Betz popped a Mount Carmel receiver in single coverage to thwart a fourth-down threat. Afterward, Betz displayed a fresh red wound on his chin, which appeared in the scrum of trying to strip the ball from a receiver as the Cats tried to dredge up momentum of any kind.

Not the sort of pattern that Jasper, which had notched 15 straight regular-season wins, has come to know.

“We’ve been on a pretty good streak here, and nothing seems to go wrong. We were just cruising on offense and our defense was stepping it up, and we were putting up some points and stopping people,” Betz said. “And then we just didn’t come out and execute tonight.”

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