The Sages’ defense was opportunistic in Monticello’s home opener Friday against St. Thomas More.
Sabers quarterback Jason Brown had eight turnovers (six interceptions, two fumbles lost), which turned a competitive game into a 32-point difference in a 51-19 Monticello win.
St. Thomas More equaled its season output in touchdowns with two first-half scores to stay close, trailing 20-13 heading into the third quarter, but the Sages offense struck quickly following the break with a 76-yard touchdown pass from Nic Tackels to Matt Kerr to push the lead to 14.
The Monticello lead would balloon to 41-13 after the two connected for another long score, this time a 60-yard TD to Kerr.
Kerr’s impact was felt on both sides of the ball – the senior captain led the defense with five solo tackles – in his return to the lineup after missing the first two contests.
“This was his first game back. We missed him quite a bit (the first two weeks),” Monticello coach Cully Welter said. “He’s a talent. Obviously, he wrecked havoc on defense but then he also scored two touchdown passes. He’s a threat on both sides of the ball.
“I just like that he’s kept his head in it. He’s kept positive. He’s gone on and played scout team and worked on his ability to help the team. We’re just very happy to have him back.”
Sages quarterback Tackels definitely enjoyed having a 6-foot-2-inch target to throw to. Tackels finished the game just 4 of 11 passing with all four completions going to Kerr, including the two touchdowns.
“It was really important (to get this win),” Kerr said. “We really needed a wake up call last week and we got that. But now we’re back to our old ways: we’re winning games again.”
Tackels also did work on the ground, rushing 11 times for 47 yards and a touchdown. He and Chris Brown carried the load for Monticello in the read-option attack, with sophomore Jacob Tackett spelling Brown at times.
“Nic’s a threat running the ball and coming into the year we thought that was probably what we need to hang our hat on,” Welter said. “I still think it will be. Obviously Chris is a game breaker-type kid. He really does generally read it pretty well. I think just like with the passing game, his confidence level has got to get better and he’s just got to let the game slow down. I think sometimes he’s getting in too big of a hurry.”
Meanwhile, the Monticello defense took advantage of Jason Brown’s short-arm release and jumped Sabers passes, which led to those six interceptions, returning two for touchdowns.
The game was bookended by those two Pick-6’s by Hayden Graham, one the junior cornerback took to the end zone from 34 yards out and the other to close the scoring with a 45-yard touchdown return – his first TDs in his varsity career.
“It’s very exciting,” Graham said. “I think we played well at first. It got a little rough in the middle, but I think at the end, when we really needed to come together, we did. We all played pretty well.”
“Hayden Graham, I was on him all game and his second Pick-6 was just a great job of breaking on the ball,” Welter said. “If we can get that out of him, he’s the type of athlete that can make plays like that, that’ll really help us.”
Monticello kicker Andrew Ellison joined the team midway through the game after competing with the Sages’ soccer team at the Cornjerker Classic in Hoopeston earlier that day, and then nailed a 33-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
The Sages (2-1) have an opportunity to build on their performance Friday with the next two games coming against teams with 0-3 records. A trip to Rantoul waits in Week 4 and Bloomington Central Catholic will travel to Monticello in Week 5 before the Sages battle rival Unity.
“We’re a work in progress and nothing’s going to come easy for us,” Welter said. “We’re young and inexperienced. If they just buy into continuing to work on fundamentals and always run to the ball and give an effort like they did (Friday) for the most part, we have a chance to get better.”