JOHNSBURG — If you are at a Coal City football game and can't find the ball, just look for Austin Pullara.
That's because the junior linebacker has a knack for being around the ball.
Case in point, Saturday's 33-14 win over Johnsburg in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs.
Pullara spent much of the early portion of the game in the Skyhawks' backfield, either stopping running plays for short gains or chasing quarterbacks Alec Smith and Johnny Preston on pass plays.
But, when he was called upon to drop into pass coverage, Pullara intercepted two passes. For good measure, he also caught four passes for 73 yards and a touchdown while playing tight end.
"We had a couple of mistakes on defense, but overall we were pretty good as a unit," Pullara said. "My coaches told me to drop a little deeper in pass coverage. Our defensive line got some nice pressure on their quarterback and [defensive back] Ryan Wasielewski tipped the ball on my second interception.
"On offense, we were able to pop a couple big plays on play-action. I was open and [quarterback] Payton [Hutchings] hit me."
Coal City's defense, which has allowed just 70 points in 11 games, struck early when Daniel Jezik recovered a fumble at the Johnsburg 26. Hutchings (10 of 15, 104 yards, 2 TDs) hit Pullara for an eight-yard gain, and a two-yard run by Connor Skubic gave Coal City a first down. On the next play, Hutchings hit Cole Garcia for a 16-yard TD pass and Jezik's kick gave the Coalers a 7-0 lead.
After a Johnsburg punt, the Skyhawks' Justin Peake intercepted a Hutchings pass at the 50 and returned it to the Coal City 18. On 4th and goal from the 1, Peake bulled his way into the end zone and Max Kegel's kick tied the game at 7.
Coal City answered with a drive that reached the Johnsburg 8 before Jezik booted a 25-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter.
The Coaler defense forced a Johnsburg punt and Coal City took over on the Skyhawks' 35. On the first play, Jezik (18 carries, 92 yards) burst through the middle for a 35-yard touchdown run and a 17-7 lead. Another Johnsburg punt was kicked into the back of one of the Skyhawk blockers and Coal City (10-1) took over at the 23. On 4th and 3, Hutchings rolled out, hit Pullara in the flat and Pullara went the rest of the way into the end zone for a 24-7 lead, which the Coalers took into halftime.
"We have a great defense," Coal City coach Dan Hutchings said. "They were like the '85 Bears today, flying to the football. Our defensive line had a great game, especially the guys inside, Christian Knutson and Cole Garcia. They are tough to block. And our defensive ends, Jacob Jasnosz, Brady Crawford and Kyle Burch, had quite a few sacks. That's a nice rotation we have with them."
After Pullara's second interception, the Coalers got a 26-yard field goal by Jezik to move ahead, 27-7. Johnsburg scored on a 26-yard pass from Johnny Preston to Gibson Groves with 9:21 to play to pull to within 27-14. Later in the quarter, Jasnosz and Garcia combined to sack Preston at the Johnsburg 27 on fourth down and, two plays later, Asa Cooper scored on a 16-yard run for the Coalers to cap the scoring.
Coal City now adavnces to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2014 and they will host Richmond-Burton, which defeated Genoa-Kingston, 19-0. The date and time have yet to be determined.
"If you want to be a good team, you have to win on the road," Dan Hutchings said. "We beat a good Johnsburg team today. Now, we will get ready for Richmond-Burton."