A little salesmanship by the Iroquois coaching staff went a long way Saturday.
The coaches sold the players on a new-look defense that allowed the Chiefs to manhandle Sweet Home, 28-6, in a Section VI Class A semifinal.
"We changed it up this week," said Iroquois coach Frank Payne. "We put in a three-man front, and our kids were like, 'I don't know about that.' We said, 'Believe in it. It's going to work.' That was the difference. We sold them on the game plan, they believed in it, and it worked out."
The Chiefs (7-2) earned their fourth trip to Ralph Wilson Stadium and their first since 2001. They'll face Lew-Port (7-2), a 21-7 winner over Hamburg, for the Class A title Friday.
The coaches went from their seasonlong 50 front to a 3-4 look on defense trying to counter Sweet Home's spread offense. Sweet Home came in averaging 36.3 points per game, but all it could muster Saturday was a touchdown with seven seconds left in the game.
Iroquois linebacker Tyrell Riley was dominant with 14 tackles and two sacks followed by Steve Mamak with seven tackles. Mike Perillo had an interception, while Andy Wolffe and Aaron Reichert had fumble recoveries.
Mamak was also the workhorse on offense, choosing to run over defenders instead of going around them, finishing with 195 yards on 33 carries. He limped off after twisting his ankle with 4:40 left but promised he'd recover before Friday.
After a scoreless first quarter, Mamak broke free on a 48-yard run up the middle on third-and-2. After Sweet Home fumbled the ensuing kickoff, the Chiefs added their second touchdown in a 13-second span when Perillo caught a 30-yard pass from quarterback Matt Baker.
Mamak said that Mike Pawelek and Chris Hutka opened up the hole on his touchdown run, but he was also quick to mention that the other offensive linemen, Dan Zagst, Brian Craig and Luke Jesonowski, are a big reason the Chiefs are going to the final.
"They've been doing it all season long," said Mamak. "We watched a lot of film on (Sweet Home) this week during gym classes and lunches and study halls, and we knew they weren't very physical, they were fast and quick, and that we had a good shot at winning this game."
The Chiefs added their third score in the third quarter. After forcing Sweet Home to give up the ball on downs at the Iroquois 11, the Chiefs drove 89 yards on 15 plays, capped by Josh Hochadel's 8-yard pass from Baker. The lead swelled to 28-0 with 3:11 left in the fourth when Riley scored from 26 yards out.
Iroquois kicker Kyle Shevlin was perfect on his four point-after kicks, and his 48-yard field-goal attempt in the second quarter had plenty of leg but was wide left.
Sweet Home struggled to find its rhythm all game. Senior quarterback Jon McMahon, who came into the game completing 44 percent of his passes, was just 5 of 20. The Panthers avoided the shutout when junior Quentin Hudson scored his seventh touchdown of the season on a 14-yard run.
The Panthers lost running back Sean McGee, who was providing the bulk of the offense, to a knee injury with 4:19 left in the third quarter. And one of the Panthers' top linemen, junior Drew Graziadei, also left the field on a cart with his knee wrapped in ice.
Sweet Home, the Class A North champions, finished 7-2.
"(Saturday) was a day of missed opportunities, dropped balls, bad passes, bad decisions, missed blocks," said coach John Faller. "It always comes down to that stuff. This hurt. We thought we had a chance to make it to the next game."