With less than a minute remaining and the Maroons up by four touchdowns, there was, for once, virtually no tension on the field.
But first-year linebacker Tony Insalaco managed to keep things interesting, intercepting a pass from Eureka backup Justen Rayner and running it back 55 yards for a touchdown that iced a 48-14 victory and provided a positive outlook in the season's last moments.
"With Matt Armbruster and Matt Hadsell graduating, we're losing some great players at linebacker. The young players will need to step up next year, and it's nice to see them do it now," said fourth-year wide receiver Drew Maloney, who had a 10-yard touchdown reception.
Insalaco wasn't the only Maroon who came up with a big play in the season finale Saturday. After trading punches for most of the first half, fourth-year tailback Frank Brown ripped off a 77-yard touchdown run to put the team up 21-14 with 5:54 left in the second quarter. Chicago didn't look back from there, adding another touchdown run from Brown, a 30-yard touchdown catch by second-year wide receiver Micah Dawson, a 38-yard touchdown fumble return by Armbruster, and Insalaco's late return. Dawson and third-year wideout Tom Guardi both had over 100 receiving yards, and second-year quarterback Marc Zera threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns against two interceptions.
"It was nice to be able to finally put it all together," head coach Dick Maloney said. "We got the big plays on offense and defense, we moved the ball consistently, and we got the defensive points we've been looking for. It was the most solid game we played all year."
"You had the guys who stepped up the whole season come up with some plays, and some of us were in and out made some big plays," Drew Maloney said. "It was a real team effort."
After the Red Devils had some success with their running game in the first two quarters, Chicago's defense shut down the home team. Third-year defensive end Rob Tamillow led the way with three sacks, costing Eureka 18 yards and bringing his season total to a school-record twelve. The team combined for seven total sacks on the day. Hadsell recovered a fumble in the first that set up a Maroon touchdown, and first-year linebacker Gabriel Fernandez contributed ten tackles, including six solo.
"We were able to get them off schedule with some of those big defensive plays, and we wore down their offensive line. We were really able to control the game in the second half," the coach said.
Armbruster and Insalaco's contributions, while not critical to the victory, were a notable exclamation point to the defense's strong week-to-week efforts. The defense hadn't scored two touchdowns in a game since the September 11 opener against North Park.
"The defense has had the potential to do this all season, but we just haven't gotten the breaks. There were so many times when they had a shot, and the ball just went out of bounds, or the other guys recovered. We finally put the frosting on the cake," Dick Maloney said.
On the offensive side of the ball, the passing game was at its best. With 341 yards and three touchdowns, the combined efforts of Zera and second-year Phil Marino were only exceeded in a 39-27 defeat at the hands of Elmhurst September 18, a game in which they also threw four interceptions between them.
"They had six or seven men forward, and our receivers were able to get some good reads and burn the ones they left back," Dick Maloney said. "Our receiving corps is probably our most improved unit. There wasn't a lot of experience at the beginning, and they really started to come through at the end."
The Maroons lost five in a row in the middle of the season and finished winless within the league for the first time since 1991. However, these numbers can prove misleading. The Maroons lost a number of agonizingly close games, most notably falling to DePauw 28-24 October 2 after failing to recover a blown punt, running out of time on Wash U's four-yard line in a 24-16 loss October 9, and being beaten 27-23 by an 86-yard touchdown reception on fourth and 23 with two minutes left last weekend against Case.
"Our biggest weaknesses were that we occasionally gave up the big play on defense, and the lack of offensive consistency. It was about turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. When we limited turnovers in the last few games, we played extremely well," Dick Maloney said.
The team won two of its final three contests to improve its record by one game over last fall. The Maroons had a number of notable performances over the course of the season, led by the defensive stand against Washington, a game in which the Maroons set a league record for fewest rushing yards (-14) and stopped the Bears from converting any of their 18 third- and fourth-down opportunities.
Off the field, after serious concerns arose about the attitude of the team in 2003's 2-7 campaign, the Class of 2005 earned praise for keeping spirits and heads high this year.
"The seniors were the glue who held this team together. No one could ever say that this team didn't come out fired up to play every week, and that's a tribute to our seniors. We've got high hopes for our junior class to continue this, and maybe even make it greater," Dick Maloney said.
"What we did was mainly righting the ship when things were falling down," Drew Maloney added. "We're pointed in the right direction now. The juniors just need to move us forward, and I think they will."
The team will lose 11 players to graduation, including 10 starters. The defensive unit loses five starters, led by team captain Armbruster and highly praised defensive end Erik Anderson. On offense, Maloney, Brown, tight end Jack Stockert, and four-season starting guard Jason Jagodzinski vacate spots.
"We'll have a lot more experience on offense going into next fall then we did this year," Dick Maloney said. "We've still got a great core, and we should be a highly competitive team next year."