The last two weeks were uncharted territory for Willie Bourbon, the kid who grew up dominating youth football leagues and who earned the starting quarterback job as a sophomore on a Stevenson team that went 8-3 a year ago. So as the junior walked back to the locker room Thursday night after his team’s 48-13 win over Zion Benton – the Patriots’ first of the season – he took a deep breath and exhaled, shrugged his shoulders and allowed himself to enjoy the victory, if only for a moment.
“It feels good, a little bit,” Bourbon said, “but we've still got to put the pedal to the metal.”
Talks of a conference championship and a deep playoff run in November were temporarily put on hold after the Patriots suffered losses in each of their first two games. An eight-turnover performance against Indian Trail and a gut-wrenching comeback that fell just short to Homewood-Flossmoor put Stevenson in a state of shock and forced them to go back to the basics, and no one felt the effects more than Bourbon.
Rightfully tabbed as one of the top quarterbacks in the state, Bourbon threw three interceptions in each of the Patriots’ two losses, including giveaways on both games’ final drives to end comeback chances. His quarterback rating through two games was an uninspiring 106.7 (by NCAA standards), a far cry from his 140.2 rating as a sophomore.
“I have never really performed like that,” Bourbon said of the first two weeks. “It was not as much a disappointment as it was…I can’t even explain it. You've just got to keep working hard and push through it. You hit adversity like every coach says; you've just got to keep going, so that’s what we did.”
And Thursday night Bourbon showed exactly the kind of quarterback he can be, one that can lead the Patriots back from their 1-2 start and accomplish the goals the team set out before the season began.
Though he threw only eight times – the Patriots’ starters rested in the second half after a 34-0 lead at intermission – two of those passes went for touchdowns to senior wide receiver Matt Morrissey. And Bourbon, who coaches have said needs to be "a running back, thinking throw,” finally asserted himself on the ground, running four times for 72 yards, including 17-yard and 8-yard scores.
“It’s awesome to see him having fun,” junior defensive lineman Nick Dillon said. “Before, he was a little tense about everything, but now he’s just back. It’s great to have same old Willie.”
Thursday night also featured the same old offensive line. The retooled unit, which had to play musical chairs after center Henry Sise suffered a broken leg in Week 1, bounced back after two lackluster performances to help the Patriots rush for 349 yards against the Zee-Bees. Junior Jason Vavrick has stepped in at center, and Dillon is now seeing work to help the short-handed group.
And now it may be getting shorter. Late in the second quarter, left tackle Zach Novoselsky had his left ankle rolled up on at the end of a run play. The Western Michigan-bound tackle couldn't put any pressure on the ankle and left in a cart, with his ankle wrapped up, to get X-rays.
“We’re hoping he’s OK, because he’s pretty much the heart and soul of our offensive line,” McNamara said after the game. “Tonight, fortunately, we had other guys who really stepped up big on that O-line, and our run game went on without him. We’re thinking about him.”
[DRIVE: Stevenson finds adversity early]
Dillon, who didn't play on the offensive line against Zion Benton to rest a nagging injury, knows he’ll be called upon more in lieu of Novolselsky’s injury and says he’s “looking forward to the challenge.”
And challenges are exactly what await Dillon and the Patriots.
As impressive as Thursday night’s win was, the Patriots know their battles continues uphill. Blowing out a winless Zion Benton at home put them back in the win column, but the journey is just beginning. The real tests are on the horizon. With rival Libertyville looming next week and a conference matchup against the Warren Blue Devils three weeks away, last night’s win, more than anything, must act as a springboard for McNamara’s group to grasp momentum and continue rolling.
“I’m more concerned with how we play than what’s happening with the other team,” McNamara said. “It was important for us to come out and play well tonight, and we did. We took care of the business the way that we were supposed to.”
Leading that charge Thursday night was Bourbon. And while there are still question marks on the offensive line, it will be the quarterback whose individual improvement will parallel Stevenson’s the rest of the way.
“I have a lot of confidence in (Willie), knowing that he has the abilities,” McNamara said. “It’s just he needed to step up and start playing like it.”