Pekin football can do something it hasn't done in nearly 20 years. Here's what it is

Steve Stein
Peoria Journal Star

PEKIN — The Pekin football team has done more than qualify for the state playoffs.

With a 48-8 victory over winless Mid-Illini Conference foe East Peoria on a wet, muddy field at Memorial Stadium on Friday, the Dragons set themselves up to do something that hasn't been done by a Pekin football team in nearly 20 years.

If Pekin (6-2, 4-2) can win at Limestone (1-7, 1-5) next week in a regular-season finale, it will be the first time the Dragons have won as many as seven games in the regular season since 2002, when they finished 8-1 under former coach Dale Patton on the way to a 9-2 overall record.

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Doug Nutter is in his 13th year as the Pekin football coach. He's headed to the state playoffs for the seventh time. His team has gone 6-3 in the regular season five times — 2011, 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2019. He had a seven-win season in 2011, when the Dragons won a playoff game and finished 7-4.

Caleb Cope

Energy and intensity

It couldn't have been a better senior night on Friday for Pekin, even though the Dragons' chances to earn a share of the Mid-Illini title became slim when front-runners Washington (6-2, 5-1) and Morton (6-2, 5-1) each won.

"Everyone got to play, and we played with energy and intensity right from the start," Nutter said. "We didn't have to overcome any adversity."

Defensive lineman Caleb Cope is one of 21 Pekin seniors who were honored Friday. He almost scored a touchdown in a brief appearance on offense. He was stopped inches short of the goal line on a 4-yard run in the second quarter.

"It was close," he said.

Cope will leave the Pekin program later this fall with great memories.

"What I'll remember most about playing football for Pekin is the family environment," Cope said. "We all have one goal ... getting better every day and making the team better every day."

Roller-coaster ride for seniors

It's been quite a ride since 2019 for Cope, a three-year starter. The Dragons lost their first three games in 2019, then won six in a row including their first victory ever at Metamora, and earned a share of the Mid-Illini title.

There was no fall season in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pekin went 2-3 in the delayed spring season, never playing its homecoming game because Metamora and then Bloomington had to bow out of the game because of COVID-19 quarantines.

This fall has produced a roller-coaster of emotions despite the Dragons' winning record.

After winning its first three games, Pekin didn't score in the second half in a 13-6 loss to Morton.

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Two weeks later, the Dragons were stunned by Washington 22-21 when the Panthers scored a touchdown and two-point conversion with 8.2 seconds left in the game, overcoming a 14-0 deficit with less than four minutes left in the third quarter.

Pekin bounced back from the Washington loss with a 35-28 win the next week at Metamora, rallying from 14 points down early in the third quarter.

The enormity of that win seven days earlier still resonated Friday with Cope.

"That was a hard loss to Washington. We took it personally," he said. "We practiced really hard to get ready for Metamora. There was no way we were going to have another bitter loss. That's why we rallied."

Running to perfection

Kanye Tyler had a perfect night Friday for Pekin. The junior running back was never tackled by East Peoria (0-8, 0-6). He carried the ball three times for 109 yards and three touchdowns, scoring on runs of 45, 48 and 16 yards.

Teammate Tanner Sprecher, another junior, had eight carries for 113 yards and two touchdowns on runs of one and 22 yards.

Mason Vicary ran for a Pekin touchdown from 2 yards out and Levi Burke returned the second-half kickoff 63 yards for a score.

Mylee Hansen was 6-for-7 on PAT's.

The second half was played with a running clock, but East Peoria quarterback Damien Brown found time to score on a 3-yard run with 4:14 to go in the game. Brown was only 2-for-11 passing for 52 yards, but he ran 18 times for 50 yards.

Pekin outgained East Peoria 410-111, averaging 9.3 yards per snap. The Dragons kept the ball on the ground. Quarterback Scotty Jordan was 2-for-3 passing for 26 yards.

Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.