ATHENS — After cruising into the locker room at halftime with a 26-7 lead Saturday, the Althoff Crusaders got a painful reminder of just how quickly big leads can disappear.
Athens scored twice in less than five minutes at the start of the second half to cut the deficit to six points before Althoff eventually secured a 32-20 victory in the second round of the Class 2A state football playoffs.
"We didn't really get down ourselves because we knew there was a lot of game left," said Althoff senior linebacker and offensive tackle Erik Furmanek. "We trust our defense and we trust our offense, so we knew we could pull it out no matter what."
Althoff junior Dennis Jackson ran the ball 38 times for 144 yards and three touchdowns to help push the Crusaders (8-3) into the quarterfinals.
They will be at home at 7 p.m. Saturday against Casey (11-0), which beat Carlinville 50-49 in overtime Saturday.
"I love bringing a playoff game back to Belleville and playing in front of our fans, just keeping our season alive," Furmanek said. "We want to keep it going."
It was also a big day for Althoff quarterback Eric Mertens, who completed 21-of-27 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.
"He wanted to come out and be efficient this week, he had a great week of practice and a good game today," Althoff coach Ken Turner said. "He's getting better each week."
Down 26-7 at halftime, Athens recovered an onside kick to start the third quarter and quickly reached the end zone on a 2-yard run by fullback James Selinger.
An interception by Athens' Jacob Rotherham set up a 40-yard TD pass from Clay Bounds to Jacob Epperson and the Warriors were back in business, down 26-20 with 7:54 remaining in the third quarter.
"I called the onside kick and it didn't work out for us," Turner said. "I'll take the blame for that. They rode that momentum and they scored the touchdowns. I just wanted to finish them off.
"We should have had the game finished in the first half...but I'm happy with the win."
The Crusaders responded with a five-minute scoring drive as Jackson bulled his way into the end zone from 1 yard out. Althoff's defense held on from there.
"They took it to us the first half," Athens coach Ryan Knox said. "I think we got a little shell-shocked with their speed on the outside defensively. Once we realized that we could tackle, we did a much better job the second half.
"It was a good football game. I think they got the money's worth for coming up here and playing us."
The Athens defense paid extra attention to Althoff's speedy receivers Garland Henley and Nick Hawthorne, leaving running room in the middle of the field for Jackson.
"If they double-covered our receivers on the outside we were going to try to pound the football," Turner said. "We thought that we could run on them because we felt we were back in our element, their big defensive line against our big offensive line. Early on we had some success, so we just kept going to it."
Althoff scored first as a 4-yard run by Jackson capped a 77-yard drive, with Jackson's running accounted for much of the yardage.
Rotherham returned the kickoff 63 yards for the Warriors' lone TD of the first half as Seth Perkins' extra point put his team on top 7-6.
A fumble recovery by Althoff's Aaron Medina set up a 26-yard TD pass from Mertens to Hawthorne with three seconds remaining in the first quarter.
Mertens, who was 13-of-16 for 243 yards and two TDs at halftime, hit Henley on a 41-yard slant route late in the first half. Henley picked his way through the defense and Donovan Gagen booted the extra point to push Althoff's lead to 26-7.
Athens' strong running game was limited to 28 yards on 12 carries in the first half and finished with 62 yards overall on 26 carries.
Knox said the Crusaders had a little more of everything when it came to comparing them with other 2A or 3A teams the Warriors had faced.
"They just had more speed than we normally see," Knox said. "When we see a good spread team, we normally see one good receiver or one really good back and with them, you're getting it at multiple positions."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at email@example.com or 239-2454.