EDWARDSVILLE — All hope seemed lost for the Edwardsville Tigers on Friday.
But the Tigers, who trailed 12-0 late in the third quarter, picked themselves off the ground and rallied for a stunning 21-18 victory over East St. Louis in the second round of the Class 7A playoffs.
Senior tailback Sam Mulford scored all three touchdowns for Edwardsville (10-1), which defeated the Flyers (8-3) on the field for the first time since the playoffs in 2005.
"All our success on offense tonight was because of these guys right here, standing right next to me," said Mulford, surrounded by his offensive linemen. "They did a heck of a job tonight. We kept pounding on the rock and came out with a victory."
The Tigers will play in the quarterfinals next Saturday at Lincoln-Way East or Providence Catholic.
"Our kids just battled," Edwardsville coach Matt Martin said. "Any time you beat quality opponents, you can be proud of yourself. It's a great win. What were we down, 12-0? Our kids kept fighting. I'm proud of this whole team. They're a good group of kids to coach."
The Flyers, who defeated visiting Edwardsville 14-7 in the regular season, committed three turnovers, including one in the third quarter that led to Mulford's first touchdown, a 1-yard run that gave the Tigers the momentum they needed to finish the job.
"We told our kids --we've been telling them all week --(that if) you turn the ball over against a good ballclub, you're not going to win the ballgame," East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett said. "We got away with it last week (against Belleville West) in the first round of the playoffs. We turned the ball over, but we squeaked one out.
"This week, the tables got turned on us. We turned the ball over in crucial situations and we ended up on the wrong end of this thing."
Senior Demus Jones' 20-yard touchdown pass to senior Dan Williams put the Flyers ahead 6-0 just before halftime. Williams had eight catches for 175 yards.
The lead grew to 12-0 on sophomore Natereance Strong's 20-yard touchdown run with 5:51 left in the third quarter.
That's when the craziness began.
Edwardsville, moments after Strong's score, advanced to the Flyers' 3-yard line on senior Bennett Gray's 46-yard run. But the Tigers were pushed back by a sack and an illegal block in the back, failing to capitalize on the chance.
The Flyers, however, kept the door open when Strong's fumble was recovered by Edwardsville junior Craig James on the East St. Louis 35.
Gray (20 carries, 109 yards) then rumbled 34 yards to the 1, and Mulford scored on the next play to make it 12-7 with 34.2 seconds left in the third quarter.
"We've been fortunate to get some good field position on turnovers, whether it be on special teams or our defense," Martin said, referring to James' fumble recovery that led to the touchdown.
Sunkett was concerned the turnover would spark the Tigers.
"It's always that way; that's just how this game is," he said. "You turn the ball over and it gives the offense a lot of momentum. They punched the ball in the end zone and got some things going. From there, it was pretty much downhill."
East St. Louis then punted, and the Tigers got the ball on the Flyers' 49. A pass interference call on junior Travon Pratter gave Edwardsville the ball on the 20, and Gray's 19-yard run to the 1 set up Mulford's second touchdown that put the Tigers ahead 14-12 with 9:15 left.
The Flyers moved back ahead 18-14 on Strong's 2-yard touchdown run with 4:54 to play. The touchdown was set up by a Jones-to- Williams pass that covered 34 yards.
But Edwardsville answered again, driving 73 yards on six plays, with Mulford's 2-yard touchdown run putting the Tigers on top 21-18 with 2:58 left.
Tigers' junior Brian Crowe then clinched the outcome when he forced a fumble on a Flyers' pass completion in front of the Edwardsville bench. Sophomore Zach Rujawitz recovered and returned the ball to the 21, and the Tigers ran out the clock.
Mulford said getting to the quarterfinals is "huge."
"We're happy to get back to a higher tradition," he said. "We're happy to be a part of this."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2665.