BELLEVILLE — Dared to stop an offense that boasted one of the state's top small-school running games, the Althoff Crusaders built a blue and gold brick wall Saturday at Lindenwood Stadium.
Althoff limited Camp Point Central-Southeastern to 78 yards on 38 carries and made its reservation for the Class 2A state championship game with a 28-7 semifinal victory.
"With all due respect, please run against us, all right?" said Althoff middle linebacker Erik Furmanek, who had eight tackles while linebacker Zach Donaldson piled up 11. "We were ready for it. We got excited when we heard all they do is run the ball."
Althoff (9-3) will take on Mercer County (13-0) at 1 p.m. Friday in the 2A state title game. It's the first trip to the finals for Althoff since winning back-to-back state championships in 1989 and 1990.
"It's a relief, man," Althoff coach Ken Turner said after the win. "We were in this spot in 2002 and we didn't get it done, so I felt like we were able to do this for all the guys that were in that situation and didn't get it done. We got it done today."
Central-Southeastern (12-1), which had 3,920 yards rushing and 58 rushing touchdowns before Saturday, was limited to 75 yards on 38 carries by the Crusaders.
After running for 1,505 yards and averaging 11 yards per carry before Saturday, Dalton Heubner was held to minus-6 yards on eight carries. Central-Southeastern's leading rusher was Dalton Weese with 38 yards on 14 carries.
Althoff quarterback Eric Mertens threw a pair of touchdown passes and the Crusaders got rushing TDs from Dennis Jackson and Nick Hawthorne in the victory.
Jackson finished with 92 yards on 20 carries while Mertens completed 22-of-27 passes for 199 yards and two TDs.
Despite 139 yards passing in the first half, the Crusaders led only 14-7 and the Panthers were hanging right with them.
A fumble deep in the Althoff end and a short punt helped the Panthers cut a 14-0 deficit to 14-7 on a 4-yard TD pass from Seth Leezer to Douglas Weese late in the first half.
A bad punt snap led to another frantic scramble by Althoff punter Jeremy Miller to narrowly avert another score. Chased by three defenders, Miller was able to get a punt off just in front of his own end zone and the Althoff defense held on fourth down.
"We still made some mistakes early, I thought we could have put the game away a little bit earlier," Turner said. "But they're a tough ballclub and they wanted a win just like we wanted a win."
The mistakes were minimized by an Althoff defense that made shutting down the run its top priority.
"Our run defense has been stout all year along," Turner said. "We've got some big guys up front and some talented guys up front. When I saw that they threw the ball over 10 times, I figured that our defense was doing good."
Leading 14-7 at halftime, Althoff got some breathing room midway through the fourth quarter when Mertens connected with Luke Frazier on a 1-yard TD pass off a fake running play on fourth-and-goal at the 1.
"Luke's guy was blitzing in and he noticed that," Turner explained of the gusty play call. "We called the same play and the guy blitzed in, he was wide open."
Jackson's 2-yard TD run with 5 minutes, 40 seconds remaining in the first quarter gave Althoff a 7-0 lead.
The first of two interceptions in the game by Althoff senior Michael Harris helped set up a 14-yard TD pass to Garland Henley from Mertens later in the first quarter.
Donovan Gagen's extra point put the Crusaders (9-3) on top 14-0.
Leezer's fourth-down pass off a failed field-goal attempt at the Althoff 20 fell incomplete early in the third quarter.
After Central-Southeastern gained a spark with 2:41 to play by recovering an Althoff fumble, Harris quelled the threat with his second interception.
Harris' second interception with 2 minutes, 9 seconds to play quelled another threat and Hawthorne sealed the win with a 22-yard TD run.
"It starts with our defensive line...all those guys up there getting us a good push," Harris said. "That's probably what won us the game."
Althoff got interceptions from Harris and Blake Butz in the first half. The Crusaders also fumbled four times, but did not lose any of them.
Althoff's Merrick Jackson has committed to Illinois and now gets a chance to play on his future home field next Friday.
"I really don't think about that too much," he said. "I'm just trying to get the dream. I'm on cloud nine right now, I finally get to go to state. That's been the dream."
Leezer said the Crusaders were too big and too fast.
"They were a lot bigger than what we've seen in our regular season and early in the playoffs," he said. "They got to the ball and they were fast."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at email@example.com or 239-2454.