CHAMPAIGN -- A moment of reflection, followed by a finger pointed to the sky and a yell of exultation.|
The reaction of Mercer County senior defensive tackle Landon McIntosh on the Memorial Stadium turf said it all late Friday afternoon as the Golden Eagles now have a Class 2A state football championship to call their own.
Cashing in on another rock-solid defensive performance that forced Belleville Althoff into six turnovers -- including one on the game's pivotal play -- Mercer County held on down the stretch to earn a 14-7 victory and cap a perfect 14-0 season.
"What a rush," said a grinning Mercer County coach Nat Zunkel. "Fifteen weeks ago, we asked, 'Why not us?' All credit to these kids. They've worked hard, and we've talked about persevering. It was a process, we got better and better each week. One team gets to say they went out as state champs, and I'm glad it was us."
Friday's title tilt was a contest that featured plenty of drama, a pair of broken records, some controversy and one wild finish.
The controversy -- and one of those state-final records -- came on the play that gave the Golden Eagles the lead for good. Given new life on a roughing the kicker penalty after going three-and-out, the Crusaders (10-4) used four consecutive Dennis Jackson runs to reach the Mercer County 15-yard line.
On his fifth straight carry, Jackson knifed to the five, but as he was going down, the ball popped out and into the hands of Devin Morford. Hearing no whistle to stop play, the senior defensive back took off running and didn't stop until reaching the end zone 95 yards later to break a 7-7 tie.
"They were close to scoring on that one," said Morford, whose long return set an IHSA state standard. "He (Jackson) came through a big hole, I ripped the ball from his hands, and it spun on my hip. I wasn't sure if the play was over or not, so I got up and kept on running until I scored."
Although several observers thought the play should have been blown dead, the touchdown stood, and ultimately so did the Eagles' lead as the teams combined for a record 10 turnovers. In fact, the Crusaders' final hopes were dashed with a series of fumbles.
With Mercer County driving for the clinching points, quarterback Tanner Matlick was hit hard and lost the ball. Althoff's Erik Furmanek scooped it up and took it into Eagles' territory, where he lost hold of the ball. Teammate Zach Donaldson then grabbed the pigskin and rumbled closer to the end zone, but he, too, fumbled and Morford recovered at the 19 with 1:54 left to play.
The Eagles ran the clock down to 42 seconds before punting, but by that time, Althoff had no timeouts and their last drive fizzled out with a series of hook-and-ladder plays that ended in one final turnover.
"Zach (Nelson) made the second strip, and I fell on it," said Morford, who returned an interception 96 yards for a TD in a second-round win over Rockford Lutheran. "That's what happens when you finish plays."
Of the game's ending, junior linebacker Chris Neeld added: "I wasn't sure if there was a flag down at the end; I was in utter disbelief. I would say this was one of the luckiest games we've had -- luck played a major part. But we just stayed in the game; that's been our mentality all year."
Despite the controversial call on Morford's score, Althoff coach Ken Turner admitted that turnovers, and not the call, ultimately doomed his team.
"I thought we were down; our guys thought they heard a whistle, and that's why they slowed up,'' said Turner. "But that's part of the game, and there's nothing you can do about it. We did some good things to stop them and to move the ball, but we made way too many mistakes to win this game."
After taking the opening kickoff, Mercer County got a quick jolt when Nelson ripped off an 18-yard run to put the ball in Althoff territory. Two plays later, however, Nelson couldn't handle an option pitch from Matlick and the Crusaders' Cole Reichert recovered at the 41-yard line.
Althoff then put together a time-consuming 19-play, 59-yard drive to produce the game's first points. On fourth-and-goal from the Eagles' 19, quarterback Eric Mertens hit Luke Frazier, who bulled his way into the end zone. Donovan Gagen converted to put Althoff up 7-0.
"We felt we could pound the ball against these guys," said Turner.
Althoff outgained Mercer County 357-208 behind 107 yards on 23 carries from Jackson, with Mertens hitting on 20 of 29 passes for an additional 248 yards.
"When we didn't make mistakes, we were moving the ball," said Turner.
Early in the second quarter, the Golden Eagles tried to make an Althoff turnover hurt after a wind-shanked punt bounced off a Crusader and Austin Rooth recovered at the Althoff 44-yard line. However, that drive ended on downs.
MC did cash in on the second of Rooth's three fumble recoveries, this one at the Crusaders' 49-yard line with 4:01 left before halftime. Mercer County used 11 plays to score its first points, as a pair of key Tyson Nylin receptions set up Jesse Snyder's two-yard run. Teryima Manta's tying extra-point kick came with 15 seconds on the clock.
A tipped ball that was caught by the Eagles' Jon Ricke for a five-yard gain turned out to be a pivotal play, as it set up a fourth-and-2 at the Crusaders' 41 instead of a longer-yardage situation or even a turnover. On the following play, Nelson gained six yards to keep the drive going.
"That was a big drive," said Matlick, who was 7-of-14 passing for 93 yards to complement Nelson's 79 rushing yards on 21 carries. "We referred again to the Stark County contest last year (a 7-0 loss in the quarterfinals), and knowing what will happen if we don't score. That was a big momentum boost, and we needed it."
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