EDWARDSVILLE — Their offense may have put up 49 points, but it was Edwardsville's defense and special teams that paved the way for the Tigers' first playoff win since 2006.
Bennett Gray rushed for 163 yards and five touchdowns as the Edwardsville Tigers routed the turnover-prone Pekin Dragons 49-7 Saturday in a Class 7A playoff game.
The Tigers capitalized on eight turnovers by the Dragons.
"They're a good football team," Tigers coach Matt Martin said of the Dragons. "You turn the ball over (eight) times, it makes anybody look bad."
The Tigers turned the Dragons' seven first-half turnovers into 28 points.
"I don't know how to explain it," Gray said of the offense getting so many opportunities from those turnovers. "You're like, 'Well, go back out there again because it happened so many times.'"
The Tigers' defense and special teams had a lot to do with those turnovers.
"Part of it is our kids playing aggressive and hitting," Martin said. "Those are kids that played a lot last year and took their lumps as sophomores, and look at them now."
The Tigers (9-1) will play the East St. Louis Flyers (8-2) next week in the second round of the Class 7A playoffs.
The Flyers, who handed the Tigers their lone loss this season, beat Belleville West 27-13 on Saturday.
"It'll be a challenge," Martin said. "They know us, we know them. We're going to have to play smart football, and play aggressive and not give up big plays. You either play well or go home."
The Dragons end their season at 6-4.
Pekin coach Doug Nutter said his team had only 10 turnovers all season before Saturday.
"You are never going to win a game if you turn the ball over eight times," Nutter said. "You have to give credit to Edwardsville. They came out and all phases were sound, disciplined."
Gray had touchdown runs of 25, 2, 19, 17, 66 and 4 yards against the Dragons.
Martin said Gray was able to use to his speed to get outside against the Dragons.
"They kind of dare you to get on the perimeter, and we were able to do it with some success," Martin said. "Their front seven is pretty good. It's tough sledding inside tackle to tackle. It forced us to go outside, and we were able to take advantage of it."
The Dragons received the opening kickoff and put together a 12-play drive that stalled in Edwardsville territory.
Pekin's turnover problems started with a high snap on its second offensive possession. Wes Grigaitis recovered the ball at the Dragons 6.
Sam Mulford had three straight carries, eventually scoring on a 1-yard touchdown run with 3:54 left in the first quarter.
The Tigers got the ball back when Cameron Throneberry sacked Pekin quarterback Chase Poole from behind, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Zac Rujawitz at the Pekin 6.
Three plays later, Mulford scored on a 9-yard touchdown run.
A 45-yard fumble return by D'Anthony Knight set up the first of Gray's touchdowns -- a 2-yard run on the first play of the second quarter.
The Tigers got the ball back when Joseph Jackson recovered an onside kick.
Bennett managed to stay on his feet as he was being tackled near the goal line and break free for an 18-yard touchdown run with 10:08 left in the second quarter.
Craig James delivered a hit that forced Pekin's Michael Bianchi to fumble on another onside kick by the Tigers. The loose ball was recovered by Edwardsville's Julian Harvey.
The Tigers didn't score on that possession, but they did score after Sean Sandifer and Throneberry charged into the backfield to block a punt.
The Dragons recovered the ball, but the Tigers took over on downs. Bennett ran 17 yards for a touchdown on the next play to put the Tigers ahead 35-0.
The Dragons had two more turnovers in the first half as Jake Vinyard recovered a fumble and Knight intercepted a pass.
On the first play from scrimmage in the second half, Bennett broke loose for a 66-yard touchdown run that led to a running clock the rest of way.
Martin said he would have never expected to have a running clock in a playoff game.
"I have everybody as the Super Bowl champs, and I'm just as tight as I can be before the game," Martin said. "It just worked out in our favor."
Running back Clage Dodson was one of the few brights spots for the Dragons as he rushed for 98 yards and one touchdown. He had 32-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Contact reporter Steve Korte at email@example.com or 239-2522.