St. Rita’s public address announcer Jack Snaidauf called Pat Cronin Field “the snake pit on Western Ave.”, and the Loyola Academy Ramblers were fortunate to escape with their unscathed record intact in the 74th meeting of the Chicago Catholic League Blue rivals on Friday, Sept. 29.
The game was much closer than the 21-5 final score suggests.
It wasn’t until quarterback Ryan Fitzgerald ran 7 yards for his second touchdown of the night with 4:23 remaining that the fellow travelers in the stands who followed the Ramblers to the far South Side of Chicago could feel secure.
The possession time reflects how much pressure was put on Loyola — 27 minutes 13 seconds for the Mustangs and 20 minutes 47 seconds for the Ramblers. Penalties for defensive pass interference and a fumble put the Ramblers in compromising positions, but they managed to minimize the damage, thanks to some huge plays on defense.
“We had a next-play mentality,” coach Beau Desherow said. “If you make a mistake or a bad play you’ve got to be ready to go the next play. The most important play is the next play; it’s something we always preach.”
The first of the defensive efforts that altered the course of the game came when lineman Jimmy McGovern broke through the defense to block a Mustangs’ punt after the hosts advanced the Loyola 49-yard line on the first series of the game. The football rolled to the St. Rita 25 before it was recovered by the Mustangs.
“I told (assistant coach Pete Devine) if he put me out there I’d block one,” said McGovern, who has been a major component all season for the Ramblers who have given up only 48 points in their six outings. “I went across, stuck my arm up and took a chunk of it.”
Five plays later the Ramblers scored a touchdown on Fitzgerald’s 3-yard run, and Michael Baker kicked the first of his three extra points. As it turned out, those seven points were all the defending IHSA Class 8A champions needed to improve their record to 6-0.
The Mustangs (1-5), whose only prior loss was inflicted by undefeated defending Class 7A state champion Mount Carmel, immediately counterattacked and drove to the Loyola 15 before their drive faltered. Faced with a fourth-and-long situation, they sent out the field-goal unit to attempt a 36-yard field goal but the kick hit the crossbar.
The Ramblers’ respite was short-lived. Starting from their 20, they were pushed back to their 6-yard line, primarily because of penalties. When Baker came in to punt the snap bounced to him and he was tackled in the end zone for a two-point safety with 2:34 to play in the first quarter.
Late in the second quarter, relying on their ground game, the Ramblers drove 88 yards in 12 plays for the touchdown that enabled them to take a 14-2 lead. Drew MacPherson’s running spearheaded the drive and he got the TD on a 1-yard run.
Early in the third quarter St. Rita went back on the attack and drove to the Loyola 2-yard line. On fourth down quarterback Jett Hilding was sacked for a 12-yard loss by free safety William Schirmang, who was subbing for injured Kenny Langston.
“It was a big stop when we needed it,” Desherow said. “That’s the other thing we talk about in our program — you’ve got to be prepared because you never know when your number is going to be called.”
“I saw him coming around and I did my job,” Schirmang said of tackling the quarterback. “I was glad I was able to make a play. It was fun being out there.”
Loyola took over and advanced to the St. Rita 5 before a fumble gave the ball back to the Mustangs who drove downfield to the Ramblers’ 17 before the defense stiffened.
The Mustangs settled for a 39-yard field goal that cut their deficit to 14-5 with 52 seconds elapsed in the fourth quarter, giving them ample time to win the game if they could a couple of big plays in the time that remained.
Instead on the Mustangs’ next possession it was Charlie Prior in the Loyola secondary who made the big play, intercepting a pass at his own 30 after St. Rita went to its backup quarterback as an injury replacement.
The Ramblers gained only 5 yards on their next three plays, dictating a punt by Baker that spawned another big play: a fumble recovery by Emanuel Ofosu. Taking over on the Mustangs’ 34, the Ramblers gained 27 yards on three runs by MacPherson that set up Fitzgerald’s 7-yard TD trip that finally cemented the victory.
Fitzgerald admitted the Ramblers were fortunate to avert an upset.
“They were definitely the best team we played and the most physical but I think it was also a lot of self-inflicted wounds,” he said. “I had bad reads and bad throws and a fumble that was our first turnover of the year.”
Nevertheless, Fitzgerald was an important contributor with 41 rushing yards in 10 carries highlighted by the two touchdowns and seven completions in 18 passing attempts for 88 yards.
While Hilding was an effective passer (10 for 16 for 138 yards) the hosts were no match for the Ramblers on the ground. MacPherson ran 20 times for 111 yards, while the Mustangs’ five ballcarriers collected only 65 net yards in 33 carries.
The Ramblers did an impressive job in thwarting 220-pound running back D.J. Stewart, holding him to a meager 9 net yards in 12 rushing attempts and seven of those yards came on one play.
By winning the Ramblers took a 36-35-3 edge in their games with St. Rita, a rivalry that dates back to Oct. 6, 1910, when Loyola was a 14-5 winner.
The Ramblers will be back on the road on Friday, Oct. 6, traveling to Elmhurst to meet Class 3A defending state champion Immaculate Conception. Hitherto unbeaten IC suffered its first defeat on Sept. 29 when St. Francis of Wheaton eked out a 35-34 triumph.
Neil Milbert was a staff reporter for the Chicago Tribune for 40 years, covering college (Northwestern, Illinois, UIC, Loyola) and professional (Chicago Blackhawks, Bulls, horse racing, more) sports during that time. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on a Tribune travel investigation and has covered Loyola Academy football since 2011.