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Neuqua Valley's Joey Rhattigan stiff arms Mt. Carmel's Deontae Brown during their state semi-final game at Neuqua Valley High School on Saturday, November 17, 2012. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

The bottom line isn’t something that hasn’t been seen before but the storyline is a little different this time for Mount Carmel.

The No. 2 Caravan is heading back to state for the 15th time in 27 seasons after recovering from a rough start to beat No. 5 Neuqua Valley 26-21 Saturday night in a Class 8A semifinal in Naperville.

Mount Carmel (12-1), which plays No. 6 Glenbard North (12-1) in next Saturday’s 8A final, fell behind in the opening seconds and didn’t take its first lead until the fourth quarter. The Caravan then went up by two scores, a cushion that proved vital when Neuqua scored in the final minute.

Along the way, Mount Carmel quarterback Don Butkus threw for three touchdowns before having to be helped off the field with a left ankle injury suffered on a conversion after the Caravan’s final touchdown.

“Coach [Frank Lenti] always said, ‘Something good’s going to happen, just keep your head up,’” said Draco Smith (20 carries, 85 yards), who was part of a ground game that gained 283 yards on 51 carries.

Butkus threw for another 121 yards, completing 9 of 13 passes. Jason Gasser had five catches for 59 yards and three scores, including the 13-yarder with 8:17 left that put Mount Carmel ahead for the first time.

“It just happened to be my night,” Gasser said. “The safeties and the corners really bit and Don threw great balls to me.”

It was a pick-your-poison decision for Neuqua Valley (12-1).

“We committed a lot of guys to the option and that’s what we needed to stop,” Wildcats coach Bill Ellinghaus said. “Credit to them for making the plays when they needed to make them in the passing game.”

Neuqua made some plays early. Mikey Dudek ran the opening kickoff back 97 yards for a score and the Wildcats stopped Smith for a one-yard loss on fourth-and-goal at the Neuqua 1-yard line on Mount Carmel’s first possession.

The Wildcats had a chance to go up two scores, but workhorse back Joey Rhattigan (20 carries, 98 yards) was dropped for a one-yard loss on fourth-and-goal from the Caravan 1-yard line early in the second quarter.

Mount Carmel then went 98 yards in 16 plays over 7:24 to tie the score on Butkus’ seven-yard TD pass to Gasser. Dudek scored again on a diving catch of a 10-yard scoring pass from Dylan Andrew (11-of-20, 219 yards) with 1:58 left in the half.

Another Butkus-to-Gasser score, from 24 yards out, made it 14-14 with 9.3 seconds left in the half.

Butkus’ third scoring pass gave Mount Carmel the lead in the fourth and the Caravan defense, led by Enoch Smith and Steven Richardson up front, held on downs on Neuqua’s next drive. Matt Domer (21 carries, 146 yards) scored from two yards out to make it 26-14 with 1:10 remaining and Butkus was hurt on the unsuccessful conversion try.

“We’ll ice it up and give him a couple days off and go from there,” Lenti said.

Neuqua still wasn’t done. Reggie Ervin caught a tipped, 32-yard touchdown pass from Andrew with 32.6 seconds to play. But Mount Carmel recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock to earn another trip to state.

“I think you’d have to say our kids really, really showed their character tonight,” Lenti said. “When was the last time you saw a big Carmel game when we threw three touchdown passes and rushed for one [score]. So much for boring.”

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