With Knox trailing 31-19 and Illinois College driving to start the fourth quarter, junior linebacker Mike Hendrick got his hands on an errant pass and had just one thing on his mind.
“All I saw was green and the endzone,” Hendrick said.
But the junior would never get pay dirt, as the pass fell from his fingers and hit the ground, leaving the Prairie Fire’s best chance at a comeback with it. The Blueboys would go on to outscore Knox 15-0 in the final quarter, ultimately pulling out a 46-19 victory.
“It’s not so much that I dropped an interception, that happens,” Hendrick said. “But at that point in the game it would have made a huge difference in the outcome. Down 31-19 it would have been a huge momentum shift to get the touchdown.”
At the time of the play, Knox was working its way back into the contest after falling behind early.
On the Prairie Fire’s first possession of the game, Doug Lillibridge had a punt blocked, which after a series of bounces, was recovered in the end-zone for a Blueboy touchdown.
Knox took the ensuing drive inside the Blueboy 5-yard line, but turned the ball over on downs after being stopped on four straight plays.
The next play was a 97-yard touchdown run by Blueboy running back Cecil Brimmage, putting Illinois College up 14-0.
Knox kept pace with the Blueboys in the second quarter as each of the teams scored two touchdowns. The Prairie Fire’s first scoring drive was capped by a 6-yard run by sophomore quarterback Drew Diaz, while the other culminated on a spectacular touchdown grab by senior wide receiver Clarke Cuthbert near the end of the half.
At the gun, Knox trailed 31-13, but the Prairie Fire opened the second half with another score – Diaz’s second touchdown run of the day – getting within two scores of the Blueboys.
But from there, Knox managed just 53 yards of offense, something that disappointed head coach Chad Eisele.
“We just didn’t get it done in the second half,” Eisele said. “It wasn’t that IC stopped us as much as we stopped ourselves. We weren’t physical enough on the offensive line, and were in too many long down-and-distance situations.”
The poor offensive performance mirrored recent struggles on the other side of the ball, but Eisele believes that Saturday was not as bad as it may have looked for the defense.
“We put our defense into some tough spots,” Eisele said. “We had that punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. We had a bad snap that gave IC the ball inside the 10, then a fake punt that didn’t work, which gave them the ball inside the thirty; too many free points.”
And despite the dropped interception, Knox still received an outstanding performance from Hendrick. Hendrick recorded 18 tackles in the game, giving him 113 for the season. The figure not only leads the Midwest Conference by an astounding 28 tackles, it places him as the nation’s leading tackler for Division III.
“The amount of tackles that he puts up is just phenomenal,” Eisele said. “You want to say that the stats can’t be right, but then you look at the film and then they are right-on.”
Hendrick added two sacks, giving him a total of six for the year.
“I have been fortunate to coach six All-American linebackers in my coaching career, but Mike does some things that even those guys couldn’t do. He’s a driven athlete who just wants to get to the ball, and you can’t coach that.”
Despite the lofty words from his coach and the impressive nature of his performance, Hendrick says he does not really think about it during the game.
“It’s at the back of my mind, but I wouldn’t say it affects my game on the field. I try to stay humble about it,” Hendrick said.
Hendrick believes the spike in numbers is in large part due to a position change.
“Last year I played outside linebacker, which meant I was little further away from run plays and only had chances on things that bounced outside. This year I’m playing inside, which gives me more freedom to move around. I like to think that if I don’t make that tackle nobody will. I obviously have confidence in my teammates, but it’s that mentality that allows me to make more plays,” he said.
This aggressive mentality opened the door to personal foul penalties early in his Knox career, but Hendrick said he has made efforts to keep things under control.
“I’ve ingrained it into my mind to avoid stupid penalties. Last year I had too many. They were just stupid penalties where I was running my mouth and got flagged for it,” he said, “One thing that I’ve changed which has really helped a lot is that if I make a tackle, I immediately help the guy up. From there I move on to the next play.”
As for the team, Hendrick believes losses like the one on Saturday cannot have a negative impact on the way they play.
“We need to get back to playing basic football and having fun,” Hendrick said. “We need to stop being overly-worried about the score. When we do that we’ll find that we are making more plays, having fun; and then that is when we will get wins.”
Knox’s next game will be under the lights as the Prairie Fire takes on Carroll University in their lone night game of the season.
“It’s a totally different pre-game. We’re traveling a little later than we normally would, but we typically play well when we go up to Carroll, and hopefully next week will not be an exception to that,” Eisele said.