Stevenson offense hits stride at perfect time

Stevenson offense hits stride at perfect time
October 4, 2013, 11:45 pm
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Mark Strotman

The records of Stevenson’s last three opponents indicate that blowout wins should have been expected, but head coach Bill McNamara has never been one to worry about what the other team is doing. If his team is performing the way they are supposed to, they have a chance to compete with any team in Illinois.

That’s where the Patriots (3-2) stand after a 52-7 rout over Vernon Hills Friday night in Lincolnshire. They won’t say it, but the players and coaching staff know their true tests await them in the coming weeks, with Warren (4-1), Lake Forest (4-1) and Lake Zurich (5-0) remaining on the schedule, but the Patriots don’t dictate who they play. After a worrisome 0-2 start, the junior-laden group needed to regroup during the soft patch of their schedule, and not only did they improve their record back above .500 for the first time; they also turned a patchwork offensive line into a strength on offense, and discovered two pairs of running backs that complement an already dominant passing offense.

Earning the actual wins hasn’t been all that impressive – the three opponents have combined for a 4-11 record thus far and none will sniff the postseason – but it’s the way in which the Patriots offense has dominated those defenses that has McNamara excited about the coming weeks.

Good offenses beat bottom feeders; great offenses put them away early and leave no doubt.

That’s what happened Friday night. Running back Tim Vestuto ran for a score on the Patriots’ opening possession, quarterback Willie Bourbon found Matt Morrissey on a five-yard fade on their next drive and kicker Mike Gambino was good from 35 yards out to make it 17-0 in the first quarter. The Patriots added touchdowns on their next two drives – a Cam Green 42-yard reception and a Bourbon keeper with six seconds left in the half – to make it 31-0 at half.

For the last three weeks Bourbon has been nearly flawless, completing nearly 59 percent of his passes for 478 yards and six touchdowns with zero interceptions – or turnovers for that matter – good for a passer rating of 212.7, 90 points higher than his combined rating during Weeks 1 and 2 (123.5), when he threw six interceptions and completed just 52 percent of his attempts in two losses.

“This is the Will that we know,” McNamara said, “and we’re happy to have him playing the way he’s playing.”

Bourbon was helped out in Week 5 by some semblance of a consistent offensive line. Through four weeks the Patriots were forced to mix and match players on the line, and only last Friday night had they been able to use the same starting five for the two consecutive weeks.

[RELATED: O'Connell adds new dimension to Patriots' defense]

Bourbon was sacked once, and a pair of holding calls brought back large gains in the first half, but the likes of seniors Pat Austin (left guard), Corey Edidin (right tackle) and Ty Dongoski (right guard), fill-in center Jason Vavrick and sophomore Cade Butler (left tackle) have given Bourbon time to pass and created running lanes for an impressive five-headed running attack.

We’ve got guys filling in now, the communication’s down on the line and we’re really gelling as a unit,” Austin said. “It’s getting better every single day. It took a little bit of time but I think we’re coming along.”

Bourbon has done well, but so has a bevy of rushers that are gaining confidence each week.

The shifty sprinter Tim Vestuto (11 car, 133 yds, 3 TD), the bulldozer Jack Joseph (22 car, 147 yds, TD), goal line specialist Ryan Mass (12 car, 65 yds) and recently implemented Conor Okmin (10 car, 70 yds) all have complemented Bourbon (21 car, 180 yds, 5 TD) well in the backfield the last three weeks, and it’s balancing out a passing attack that includes the Michigan State-bound Morrissey and future Division I athlete in Green.

[DRIVE: Morrissey follows father's footsteps by making his own way]

In all the Patriots have rushed for 947 yards on 129 carries (7.3 average) in their last three wins. Opponent notwithstanding, those are numbers any team would marvel at, and at the very least it’s adding confidence and giving the Patriots versatility and options that offensive mastermind McNamara can use at his disposal in the coming weeks when the fellow playoff contenders come calling.

“When you see all these guys going down, you know if one guy goes down you’ve got another guy that can come in,” Bourbon said.  “So it’s good when you know you have three or four guys that can get yards. When you have versatility like that it’s great.”

The Patriots contend they’re a team that wants to first establish the run, but the reality – and something they know – is that the offense will go as far as Bourbon, Morrissey and Green take them through the air.

[MORE: Bourbon improves, leads Pats to victory]

Bourbon has put up his impressive numbers the last three weeks playing the first half of each game, and Morrissey (10 rec, 159 yds, 4 TD) and Green (6 rec, 199 yds, 2 TD) have been the main recipients.

“We’re starting to get better. You can tell that our hard work in practice is really starting to pay off. And our playmakers are making plays, too,” McNamara said. “And it’s great. That’s kind of how we expected it.”

It would have been a story had the Patriots not won their last three games, and they know it. But averaging 8.5 yards per play the last three weeks is not just an irrelevant statistic to throw away because of the opponent. Only the next four weeks will prove whether this momentum, increased roles and improved play will mean anything.

But given their opponents, the Patriots offense did exactly what they needed to do. The offensive line finally has some stability to build on, the running game is finding down-and-distance-specific backs in four key players and the team’s top two receivers are playing their best football heading into their toughest stretch of the regular season.

That stretch includes three straight road games before a home finale against Lake Zurich, which could decide the North Suburban conference championship if the Patriots take care of business before then.

“We’re going to be the road warriors now, and really we look at it as a time for our team to come together as a unit,” McNamara said. “When you come into hostile environments you’ve got to be together.”

Added Green: “We’re really stressing it that no game is going to come to us easy, so these last three opponents were great but we came out and said, ‘We’ve got to take this, we’ve got to win big.’

“We’re realizing what it means to be a Patriot. We’re starting to play Patriot football and everything’s clicking.”