CHESTER — Stung early by a fired up Chester Yellow Jackets squad, the Althoff Crusaders patiently waited for an opening.
That opening came early in the second half as Althoff broke open a close game with three third-quarter touchdowns before finishing off a 42-24 Class 2A state first-round football playoff victory.
Althoff (7-3) got to celebrate its first playoff win since 2005 thanks in part to a season-high four rushing touchdowns from Dennis Jackson. Three of those came in the second half.
Althoff linebackers Erik Furmanek and Zach Donaldson each had two interceptions and quarterback Eric Mertens completed 12-of-18 passes for 244 yards and a TD.
The Crusaders will face Athens, a 20-13 winner over Beardstown, in the second round next weekend.
"All week all the noise has been about us playing in 2A and the big deal that everybody made out of it, so obviously they were going to take that as fuel," Althoff coach Ken Turner said of the Yellow Jackets (9-1). "I wouldn't say we came out slow, I'd say they came out fired up. But I felt if we could withstand their rush at the start of the game and stay focused, we could wear them down."
Chester trailed 14-7 at halftime, then grabbed a 17-14 lead early in the third quarter on a 35-yard field goal by Austin Redeker and a 35-yard TD pass from Jake Cowan to Brad Asselmeier.
But just as they did in the first half after falling behind, the Crusaders answered quickly and re-established command.
Nick Hawthorne took a quick-out pass and flew down the right sideline for a 68-yard touchdown less than a minute after Asselmeier's TD.
Furmanek's two interceptions both set up rushing touchdowns by Jackson as Althoff's lead grew to 35-17 early in the fourth quarter.
Jackson, who had 82 yards on 21 carries, tacked on another TD run with 4:17 remaining and the Crusaders were on their way to the second round.
"We felt like if we could get our athletes in space they could do some things with the ball, that's what we try to do every game," Turner said. "We were very successful doing that tonight. We've got some good weapons, we've just got to put them in position to make plays."
An early backside screen pass from Cowan to Steven Roth covered 24 yards for a touchdown and Redeker's extra-point gave Chester a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Cowan was 18-of-31 for 188 yards and two TDs. Chester lived by the run most of the season, but was never able to establish much consistency on the ground against the Crusaders.
Althoff tied it four minutes later on a 5-yard TD run by Jackson and Donovan Gagen's extra-point try.
An 80-yard Althoff scoring drive was capped by Garland Henley's diving catch on the right side of the end zone with 55.7 seconds remaining in the first half.
Henley also hauled in a 33-yard pass during the drive and the Crusaders led 14-7 at halftime.
Turner wondered how the unusual amount of hype surrounding the game would affect his players.
"I told them not to read (things) and not to look on the message boards, but they're kids and they're going to look at it," Turner said, noting a lot of comments on newspaper stories, high school sports web sites and social media outlets. "As much as we talked to them about not paying attention to it, obviously they're going to pay attention a little bit."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.