ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO/WQRF) — The Northwest Upstate Illini Conference has been collecting state championships by the bushel for the past few decades. The Dakota Indians have contributed to that by winning three titles. We focus on the first one in our ‘Glory Days’ segment. It came in the fall of 2005.
The Indians took a 13-0 record into Champaign to face once-beaten Aledo for the 2A championship. The Indians love to run the football with halfback Tyler Olsen and fullback Matt Wenger. Those two players had combined for almost 3,000 yards rushing coming into the game.
In this game Dakota ran 60 offensive plays, 54 of those were runs. Wenger piled up the biggest stats. He rushed for 163 yards and three touchdowns. The first one in the second quarter still left the Indians trailing 8-6, but the next two put them up 20-8 late in the third. Aledo cut it to 20-15 in the fourth quarter, but a desperation pass by Aledo on the final play of the game was batted down in the redzone, and Dakota had a 20-15 win for its first state championship. In Jerry Lano’s 17th season at Dakota the Indians had finally reached the top. Other key players on that team included Luke Winterhalter, Jared Benedetto, quarterback Darren Olsen, Paul Graybill, Brandon Houghton, Curt Daughenbaugh and Kevin Kerchner.
Following is my interview with Wenger (as seen on ‘Overtime’ Friday nights at 11 p.m. on Fox 39/rebroadcast Sunday mornings at 9 a.m. on Fox 39).
[INTERVIEW WITH MATT WENGER]
(Scott) Matt is there one play from that championship game that stands out in your memory?
(Wenger) “There’s probably a handful, but I think it’s the last play obviously with the ‘Hail Mary.’ We were able to knock it down. If you actually go back and watch it on tape it was pretty scary because that ball it wasn’t a clean bat-down. It kind of hung up there for a little bit and you had the trailer coming and the guy almost, almost caught the ball which could have been disastrous for us but it worked out.”
(Scott) You guys trailed until late in the third quarter. At any point up until then was there any panic on the sideline on in the huddle?
(Wenger) “No, I wouldn’t say there was panic. We knew going into that game that they were a really good team. That they were very balanced and it was going to be a big challenge for us. We had to start doing some, a couple of different things and made a couple adjustments at halftime, and then in the third quarter we came out and I think we had an 18 or 19 play drive and we scored and then took the lead and that was really I think kind of changed the whole…changed the game at that point. It put us in control. I wooldn’t say we took over but we were able to control the clock and control the ball. I think we had the ball for eight or nine minutes in the third quarter and we obviously ended up winning the game.”
(Scott) You had a big game individually rushing for 163 yards and three touchdowns, and you led the defense with 13 tackles and a sack. You always played physical and with great emotion. How, Matt would you describe the fire that burned in you that day as you tried to get that first state championship for Dakota?
(Wenger) “You know it was probably one of the most memorable games I’ve ever played in. When you’re growing up with all your buddies winning a state championship is something that you all want to do at some point and having the opportunity to do it and it’s right there in your grasp you just kind of grab it, don’t let go. You’ve just got to refuse to lose, and that’s the attitude that I had and we all had a lot of guys that way which is why we won.”
(Scott) So many of the guys on that team were also great wrestlers, yourself included. We all know how mentally tough wrestlers are. How much did that wrestling background help you guys on the football field?
(Wenger) “It was huge. We had probably the most mentally tough team of any of the teams that have ever come through this area. We had a lot of guys that were pretty tough guys and they were all in the same group and we were able to get it done.”
NOTE: Matt Wenger currently lives in the Dakota area, and he’s helping out at the family’s cheese factory in Davis.