CHAMPAIGN — The fans who braved a heat index near triple digits packed the bleachers on the home side of Tommy Stewart Field on Friday expecting to witness an aerial attack spearheaded by Centennial’s talented quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald.
The junior showcased a dual attack in a season-opening 28-7 win against Decatur Eisenhower, but it was classmate Austin Maltbia who opened some eyes with his performance.
The 180-pound junior ran over, around and through defenders, carrying the ball 20 times for 101 yards and a touchdown. He also caught a 19-yard swing pass from Fitzgerald to help the Chargers take care of their Big 12 foe from Macon County.
“He ran like we knew he could run. We’ve been waiting for that, and (Friday night) he showed it. I think he’s just going to get better and better,” Centennial coach Mike McDonnell said. “He played most of the year (last season). He was a sophomore, and he wasn’t as fast and as strong. He’s a junior now, and he’s got that junior maturity.”
After a three-and-out on Centennial’s first possession, Fitzgerald found his rhythm and finished the night 10-of-17 passing for 103 yards and a touchdown. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder, who enters his junior season with a handful of Division I scholarship offers, including one from Illinois, ran 11 times for 90 yards and a pair of touchdowns, punishing defenders who dared try to bring him down.
“I just like going out and playing with my team and being with those guys. Most of us played last year, and this is our 10th game together, so we want to just get out there and play,” Fitzgerald said.
The defense and special teams came up big for the Chargers, too. Two of the Panthers’ three fumbles were on kickoffs, and Centennial’s Jeremiah Peoples returned a kickoff 71 yards to the Eisenhower 8 to set up a Maltbia touchdown a play later. Centennial limited the Panthers to 28 yards rushing and 171 total yards.
The game was delayed about 15 minutes with 6:22 remaining in the fourth quarter when a fight broke out between the two teams near the south goal line, leaving one of the game officials with a bloody chin.
Eisenhower quarterback Dylan Smith took exception to a big hit, threw punches and a melee ensued. Centennial starting defensive backs Dominic Stampley and Julian Hess were ejected. Eisenhower’s Smith and C.J. Lowe also were thrown
Per IHSA rules, all four players are suspended for next week’s games.
“We’ll take a look at the film and see what happened,” McDonnell said. “I don’t think anybody really knows yet what happened. It should be on film, and we’ll see.”