CHAMPAIGN — When quarterback Nick Birlingmair went down on the first play of the second half, there was a silence on Normal Community High School’s sideline.
Birlingmair was sensational in the first half of Friday night’s opener against Champaign Central, throwing for two touchdowns and running for another while accounting for 183 yards in leading the Ironmen to a 24-10 lead.
It turns out Birlingmair was fine, suffering from cramps. His replacement, Austin Jones, did a commendable job as well in helping NCHS roll to a 38-17 victory at Tommy Stewart Field.
“I thought our team came out and our mind was where it needed to be,” said NCHS coach Wes Temples. “They played with some passion and energy, which you have to do to play this game.”
Birlingmair, making his first varsity start, completed 7 of 9 attempts for 116 yards while running for 71 yards. He threw touchdown passes of 24 yards to Jalen Cribbs and 43 yards to Chase Robbins while scoring NCHS’ first TD on a 5-yard run. Jones didn’t throw a pass, but ran the option effectively with 62 yards on eight carries.
“He has a tendency here and there to cramp,” said Temples of Birlingmair. “We looked over and we were up 21 points (in the second half), so there was no reason to put him back in.”
Champaign Central also suffered an injury, which was more severe.
Brad Wright scampered 98 yards on a kickoff return after Birlingmair’s TD run to tie the game early in the first quarter. But after Birlingmair connected with Robbins on a scoring pass down the middle on the first play of the second quarter to increase NCHS’ lead to 21-7, Wright was hurt on the ensuing kickoff.
Wright was later carted off with a left leg injury.
“Losing Brent early hurt us,” said Champaign Central coach Ira Jefferson. “Whenever you have an athlete like that (go down) it’s going to hurt you.”
Spencer Smith added a 20-yard field goal with 3:22 left in the first half for a 24-7 lead before Cameron Miller answered with a 38-yard field goal with 24 seconds left.
Jones drove NCHS 60 yards after Birlingmair went out, culminated by Austin Snodgrass’ 2-yard TD run with 7:14 left in the third quarter. Jones led another scoring drive of 29 yards in the fourth quarter, with Tony Delgado-Conner scoring on a 1-yard run for a 38-10 lead with 9:09 left.
NCHS outgained the Maroons in total yardage, 341-254. Six different players had receptions for the Ironmen.