It simply wasn’t shaping up to be Cory Bunker’s night.
First, the Vandalia sophomore sustained a brutal hit while fielding a first-quarter punt Friday, fumbling the ball away as a result.
He then saw a big third-quarter punt return to the Staunton 1-yard line called back to the Vandalia 46 due to a clipping penalty on the Vandals.
So when Bunker went airborne to challenge Bulldogs defensive back Taylor Wright for a fourth-quarter bomb to the end zone by VCHS quarterback Drew Bell, it seemed almost inevitable that Wright would come away with an interception.
But after both players went down in a heap after battling for possession for the ball in mid-air, Bunker’s fortunes – along with those of the Vandals – suddenly changed.
Bunker emerged in the end zone, arms raised in triumph, with the football in his right hand.
His spectacular, albeit controversial, reception produced something even more unexpected up to that point in the game – a touchdown – breaking up a scoreless tie.
Staunton attempted to answer Bunker’s TD numerous times in the final 9 1/2 minutes of the game, putting up 28 passes in its final three possessions, including no fewer than eight passes to the end zone.
But Vandalia’s secondary made sure that Bunker’s unlikely TD was the game’s last, as the Vandals held on for a 7-0 win.
‘It was just a great all-around effort by our defense,’ said Vandals coach John Stout after his team’s third shutout of the season.
‘I knew it was going to be a defensive battle. They’re giving up about 9 points (a game) and we’re giving up seven. I knew that the first team to score would probably have the advantage.’
Stout’s assumption proved to be true, but not without some tense moments late.
Staunton quarterback Josh Teeske had some success airing it out in the final quarter, completing eight passes, including three connections for fourth-down conversions that gave the host team some hope.
But VCHS defensive backs Jake Etcheson, Bell and Anthony Coney denied the Bulldogs entry into the end zone with several big-time defensive plays.
Linebacker Mitch Whightsil then clinched the Vandals’ seventh win of the season with an interception with six seconds remaining.
Staunton had driven all the way to the Vandals’ 15-yard line prior to Whightsil’s interception, coming up with a pair of improbable fourth-down conversions along the way, but Stout says he never lost the faith.
‘Really, I wasn’t as worried as I was last week (in a close game against Pana),’ Stout said. ‘I was kind of calm on the last drive. I knew our kids had put too much into it in the offseason to give in and let them score.’
Prior to Whightsil’s interception, Etcheson came up with a touchdown-saving play with 1:23 to go, knocking down a pass ticketed to Cody Best in the end zone with a perfectly timed leap.
Etcheson, who moved from safety to cornerback in a switch designed to contain Best, frustrated the all-conference wideout all night.
‘What can you say about Jake?’ Stout said. ‘He just totally shut him down.’
Etcheson had similar touchdown-denying plays on Staunton’s prior two possessions, ending Bulldog drives at the Vandals’ 25-yard line each time.
Bell added a near interception on Staunton’s next-to-last drive, to go along with a one-handed knockdown of another Teeske pass to Best in the end zone. Coney also had a near interception on a deep pass.
If not for an interception by Bell early in the fourth quarter, the two teams might still be locked up in a scoreless duel.
After three defense-dominated quarters, Bell set the Vandals up deep in Staunton territory with his fourth interception of the year early in the final period.
Three plays later, Bell took a Three plays later, Bell took a snap in a shotgun formation and fired a spiral deep to a sprinting Bunker.
Wright had a bead on the pass, however, and he appeared to get a hand on it before Bunker. But Bunker managed to strip the ball away from Wright in mid-leap before going into a summersault. Bunker then immediately sprung to his feat and signaled ‘touchdown.’
Staunton supporters felt Bunker had scooped up a loose ball after the ground forced Wright to lose control of an interception.
But the officials sided with Bunker, drawing the ire of Bulldogs supporters and setting off a wild celebration by the Vandals.
‘Cory just made a great catch,’ Stout said. ‘Drew threw a good ball down there, too.
‘We tried to put in about five routes this week, and that was the one we were most successful with. We came back to it and scored on it.’
Bunker’s catch turned the momentum in Vandalia’s favor moments after a discouraging possession.
After Bunker’s aforementioned punt return was called back, the Vandals drove into Bulldogs territory for just the second time all night. But Stout opted to punt on 4th-and-4 from the Staunton 38, rather than take a chance.
‘Our guys didn’t like it when I punted on fourth down,’ Stout said. ‘But I didn’t want to do anything silly and turn the ball over.’
Stout was confident the Vandals’ defense would put the offense in excellent field position, and that’s exactly what happened following Bell’s interception – one of three forced turnovers by Vandalia on the night.
Those turnovers helped the Vandals overcome Staunton’s advantage in total offense, 241-162. Staunton wound up passing for 150 yards, but it took Teeske 46 attempts to get to that total.
Vandalia managed to get into Staunton territory just three times all night, doing so on two occasions thanks to Bulldog turnovers. But thanks to VCHS’s stellar defense, which has given up just six touchdowns all year, it was enough for the Vandals to escape Staunton with a win in what could be the last meeting between the two programs.
‘This is the last time we’ll see them in the regular season,’ said Stout of Staunton, which will leave the South Central Conference next year. ‘To come over and do it on their home field, to me it’s the best win I’ve had in a long time.’
The loss was Staunton’s third in a row – all of which have come at home.
‘It’s a tough place to play,’ Stout said. ‘And we knew they were going to come in steaming, because they had just dropped two on their home field… now three. We anticipated the tough game we got.’
The Vandals will now look to improve their playoff stock with a ‘Senior Night’ win over Carlinville on Friday.
‘We’re playing for positioning,’ Stout said. ‘Hopefully this got us a home game at 7-1, but we want a higher seed so that maybe we can get a 5-4 team in the first round.’