CANTON — Dunlap clinched its first Mid-Illini Conference football championship since joining the league in 2000 with a 35-7 win at Canton on Friday night.
The Eagles (9-0, 7-0) completed the program's first undefeated regular season since 1992, and are the first team other than Metamora or Washington to win the Mid-Illini outright since Canton did it in 2003.
“This is a great league and it tells you how great Metamora and Washington have been to do this year-after-year,” Dunlap coach Brett Cazalet said. “It tells you how special of programs they have. … This wasn’t on our radar. This is something that isn’t just reflective of the class of 2017 or 2018, it’s reflective of the guys that have put in the time, built up the work ethic and the things that over the years have led to this.”
Dunlap used its passing attack to open up the running game. Myles Burke found running back Luke Bennyhoff for a 28-yard touchdown pass for the first score of the game. Burke hit Charlie Mangieri for a 3-yard touchdown pass 4:06 later to give the Eagles a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter.
“If you go back and look at Canton’s game, nobody has really run the ball real successfully on them,” Cazalet said. “We felt like we’d have to throw a little bit to loosen them up.”
Canton’s offense was able to get nine first downs on the night, but couldn’t capitalize when it had open receivers in big situations.
“They forced us to (pass) it all night long and with that they forced us to pass the ball and they dared us to do it all night long and with that we missed some opportunities,” Canton coach Cody Myers said. “Whether that was pressure on the quarterback, or a dropped pass or bad throw, they did a good job of scheming us, taking some things away and forcing us to do so.”
The Little Giants pinned Dunlap at its own eight on a punt late in the third quarter. Two plays later, Bennyhoff busted a 95-yard touchdown run. He followed with a 29-yard touchdown run 2:23 later to stretch the lead to 28-0.
“I knew that their corners weren’t the biggest and our receivers were bigger than their corners so I knew the outsides would be open if our receivers blocked well,” Bennyhoff said. “That’s what I was really trying to do was hit the hole and then bounce it to the outside.”
Bennyhoff also had a key interception late when he used his speed to close the gap to create the turnover.
“They ran that about two or three times during the first half and I was missing on the key,” Bennyhoff said. “I knew they’d come back with that and I knew I’d be on top of it and I just broke on it fast.”
Canton averaged 276 rushing yards per game entering the season finale but could only muster 118 yards on the ground against Dunlap’s defense.
“They are so long and athletic on top of how fast they are that every time that we had a big run against most teams, these guys tripped us up,” Myers said. “We live or die without the big play and they held us without one tonight.”
Nathen Petty scooped up a Dunlap fumble late and took it 89 yards for Canton’s lone touchdown.
Aaron Ferguson can be reached at 686-3207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Sports_Aaron.