CHAMPAIGN -- Each time the Mercer County football team practices on a Wednesday, they spend 10 minutes working as a defensive unit to create turnovers.|
Any individual who forces a certain number receives a prize.
"Five strips, one sprint off," Mercer County coach Nat Zunkel said. "Ten strips, two sprints off."
The drill gave the Golden Eagles the ultimate prize.
Six forced fumbles, including two in the red zone, proved Zunkel's drill produces big results. Without them, the Golden Eagles do not exit Memorial Stadium with a 14-7 win over Belleville Althoff in the Class 2A state championship game on Friday.
"Coach has been preaching to us all year to get those turnovers," Mercer County senior linebacker Zach Nelson said. "Watching film, I noticed these guys held the ball really loose. It went in our favor."
Three turnovers proved critical in a game decided by mistakes.
The first one set the tone.
Althoff (10-4) took possession to start the second half with the game tied 7-all and drove to the Mercer County 15. On 2nd-and-4, Dennis Jackson received a handoff from Eric Mertens and gained 10 yards before being tackled by Devin Morford.
All of a sudden, Morford had the ball and started running.
"I laid a pretty good hit on him and he went straight down," Morford said. "When he was going down, I stuck my hand in there and pulled out the ball. It was spinning on my hip, so I grabbed it and took off."
What appeared to be a dead play resulted in the go-ahead score. Morford picked up the fumble, broke a tackle and returned it 95 yards for a touchdown. After the extra point, Mercer County held a 14-7 lead with 8 minutes, 31 seconds left in the third quarter.
Morford's fumble return was the longest in IHSA playoff history.
"We thought we were down," Althoff coach Ken Turner said. "We heard the whistle, that's why our guys stopped."
Mercer County (14-0) was adamant the play was live.
"There was no whistle blown at all," Nelson said. "The ref did not blow the whistle."
Early in the fourth quarter, the Crusaders again stood inside the red zone before losing another fumble. On an exchange between Mertens and Jackson, the ball fell onto the turf and was recovered by Austin Rooth at the Mercer County 12.
With the fourth quarter halfway gone, Althoff lost its fifth fumble.
"We made too many mistakes," Turner said. " ... We kept shooting ourselves in the foot. When you make mistakes like that, you fall short."
Another painful miscue followed.
Althoff recovered a fumble after sacking Mercer County quarterback Tanner Matlick on a 4th-and-7 play late in the fourth quarter and had a lane to a touchdown. Erik Frumanek picked up the fumble and started running before the ball was stripped from his hands.
Althoff's Zach Donaldson recovered the second fumble and took off running, but lost the ball when Nelson stripped him near the Mercer County 20.
As the ball lay on the turf, Morford quickly fell on the fumble.
Mercer County regained a new set of downs with 1:54 left in the game.
"It was crazy. They're fumbling; we're fumbling.'' said Nelson. "I stripped that last one. I was thankful it was finally over.''
At that moment, so was the game.
"We could not give up on that play," Morford said.
The Golden Eagles did not, especially when Althoff marched into its red zone twice in the second half.Both times, Mercer County found a way to create turnovers.
"Amazing," Morford said. "Awesome."