Homewood-Flossmoor was falling apart.
After racing out to a 20-point lead in the game's first six minutes, the 2014 Vikings were slowly crumbling in a crucial road tilt against Lincoln-Way East. The Griffins, then ranked No. 16 in the state, had clawed back in the first half and trailed by a single score at halftime, 28-21. The two teams traded scores in the second half, with the Griffins scoring the eventual game-winning touchdown with 6 minutes remaining in a 43-40 victory.
The heartbreaking loss, one that cost the Vikings a shot at their first SouthWest Suburban Blue conference championship, was a reality check for Craig Buzea's junior-dominated group. Squaring off against its biggest rival, the young Homewood-Flossmoor team had focused its energy on finding a way for the Griffins to lose instead of rallying as a team to help their own cause.
"I just saw our team come apart, just yelling at each other, screaming at each other," head coach Craig Buzea recalled. "And we corrected it later on in the year and got things rolling, but I just didn’t like that, how divisive we had come with each other."
It's why last Friday night, in a rematch of bitter rivals between the state's top-ranked Vikings and the No. 13 Griffins, Buzea had a different message for his team. Moments before his team took the field, Buzea ended his pregame speech with a heartfelt thought, relaying to his senior-laden group that had all experienced last year's crushing defeat, that they were playing for one another, not against a nameless and faceless opponent.
"Instead of playing against the people in front of you with hatred, despair, things like that, that happens with a rival," Buzea calmly relayed to his group, "what I want you to do is this: play for the people behind you that you love and you respect and you go to war with every day. That’s what I want. That anger that you feel toward your opponent is not nearly as strong as that bond you have playing for the people that respect you, that are behind you, which are your teammates.
"And that’s all it takes, guys. That's all it takes. Stay together. I believe in you, the coaches believe in you, by God you believe in each other."
What happened next was the most complete 48 minutes of football the Vikings had played all year in a 28-3 victory.
The Vikings, despite their surplus of talent on the offensive side of the ball, were relatively shorthanded. Running back Deante Harley-Hampton, the team's second leading rusher, had been hampered by a left calf injury suffered a week earlier. He didn't practice all week, didn't come out for pregame warmups and wound up rushing just 10 times for 25 yards before sitting the majority of the second half. Though the injury is thought to be minor, if anything it changed how the HF offense, which had been healthy all year, attacked a Griffins defense that had allowed 32 points in five games.
It meant more volume for Deante's brother, Devonte, who rushed for 129 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. His first score came late in the second quarter, plunging in from 1 yard out to extend the Vikings' lead to 21-3. His second score put the game out of reach, a 73-yard scamper with 7 minutes remaining. It was just the second game of Devonte's football career in which he hadn't had his twin brother in the backfield with him, and though reserve Tyler Nutall (8 carries, 32 yards) contributed, a steady dose of Devonte was going to be necessary for success.
"I put most of the pressure on my back because (Deante) was out most of the game, so I had to pick up his slack," he said. "It changed my mentality a lot. There’s a lot of pressure and it was a big game for all of us."
[#DriveVikings: HF balancing expectations and avoiding complacency]
It also meant more vertical passing from quarterback Bryce Gray. Though certainly much more than a game manager, Buzea's offense and the embarrassment of riches at the skill positions allowed Gray to play it safe more often than not; Gray has thrown 106 passes without an interception, and yet those 74 completions have gone for 1,817 yards and 20 touchdowns.
But needing a spark, with the Vikings' offense down a vital piece to their rushing attack, Buzea let his supremely talented quarterback loose. Gray was exceptional, completing 13 of 18 passes for 226 yards and a touchdown. Three of his completions went for 40 or more yards, two to Wisconsin commit Kendric Pyror (41, 50) and one to rising junior star Ty Richie (46). Four different Vikings are averaging better than 20 yards per reception through seven games.
"I know if I’m throwing the ball up they’re going to go get it," he said. "Unless I throw a terrible pass they’re going to go get it. I wish we could have thrown it more. But they changed it up and made some adjustments, but having those two guys on the outside is amazing, really. I just let it go."
The offense cranked out 414 yards snd scored three times, all without their second leading rusher and third leading receiver in Harley-Hampton. But those numbers were well short of their season averages, and the unanimous feeling in the locker room was that the Vikings could have done more.
They didn't need to.
The Homewood-Flossmoor defense, which had been the subject of criticism earlier in the year, saved their best performance of the year for the season's biggest stage.
The Vikings offense, which hadn't been held to fewer than 40 points in any game this season, went on a rare cold streak midway through the second quarter. Though they looked like world beaters on the opening drive, their next three possessions ended in a turnover on downs, a lost fumble and the third punt of the year, gaining just 57 yards on 17 plays.
Waiting to take advantage was Brandon Bauer and the dangerous Griffins offense, which entered Flossmoor having averaged 37 points per game. Trailing 7-3 midway through the second quarter, Bauer led the Griffins on a drive deep into Vikings territory and appeared ready to cash in - the Vikings hadn't trailed an opponent all year.
But an errant snap over Bauer's head took an odd bounce as he tried to land on it, with linebacker Percy Walters subsequently delivering a hit that squirted the ball out of Bauer's hands.
Waiting to scoop it up was rising sophomore linebacker Justin Hall, who scampered 62 yards for a score and shifted momentum the Vikings kept the remainder of the night.
Lincoln-Way East failed to get a hand on the ensuing kickoff, giving the Vikings offense a short field that ended in a touchdown five plays later. In the span of 84 seconds the lead went from 7-3 to 21-3.
"I just knew the ball was coming out, so as soon as I seen the ball pop out I was like, ‘I’ve got to take advantage of this. This is a big game,’" Hall recalled. "As soon as I picked it up all I saw was field, daylight, took it right to the end zone. Right home with me."
Wells' defense continued erasing doubts about their talent in the second half. In five second-half possessions, the Griffins were shut out and gained just 125 yards. Hall compiled a game-high eight tackles and recovered his second fumble early in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings defense has now allowed 22 points in their last 22 quarters, 15 points in their last four games and is hitting their stride as they continue to transform under Wells.
"I knew it, my coaches knew it, they were telling me this is a big game for you," Hall said. "I was like, ‘Well, big time players make big time plays in big time games.’"
The defense picking up the offense. Devonte Harley-Hampton and Gray's arm picking up Deante being less than 100 percent. "Team wins" have long been a cliche in football, but it's exactly what the Vikings accomplished in Week 7. The Vikings took their coach's pregame message to heart and took an important step on their journey toward winning a state title.
With the inside track on an undefeated regular season and conference championship, mentally preparing for what will be a grueling 8A playoff schedule has become equally important as the X's and O's for the state's top-ranked team.
"I knew it was going to be some adversity and I knew at that point I didn’t want them to just bank on their feelings toward their opponent," Buzea said. "I wanted that feeling to really come back on their teammates, and they looked like that’s exactly what they did.
"It looked like they really played for each other and I think that’s a big key moving forward."