CHAMPAIGN — In a Class 2A state football championship game that included 10 turnovers Friday, the one that really mattered resulted in a 95-yard touchdown.
Mercer County linebacker Devin Morford picked up a fumble at his own 5-yard line early in the third quarter and rambled a state-record 95 yards for a touchdown as the Golden Eagles defeated Althoff 14-7 to win the state title.
"One team in the state of Illinois gets to say they went out as champions today," Mercer County coach Nat Zunkel said. "I'm so glad it's us."
Althoff (10-4) fumbled the ball seven times and lost six of them, including two turnovers inside the Mercer County 20 in the fourth quarter while driving for a potential game-tying TD.
Mercer County (14-0) had four turnovers, but picked up the ones it needed at opportune times.
"We could have easily had 28 points on the board if we don't make the mistakes," said Althoff coach Ken Turner, whose team finished 10-4 in its first title game appearance since 1990. "I think we can point here and there on the controversial calls, but it probably shouldn't have even got to that if we don't make the mistakes on our end.
"These kids have been warriors all year and they always give me everything they've got. I just feel bad for them because I knew they were going to leave their hearts on the field."
With the game tied at 7, Althoff got the ball to start the second half and was driving down the field. At the end of an 8-yard gain, Althoff junior running back Dennis Jackson lost possession of the ball.
As players for both teams slowed momentarily, Morford picked up the loose ball and headed down the field. He didn't stop until he reached the end zone with what proved to be the game-winning TD.
"The whistle blew, everybody turned and looked at the ref," said Althoff linebacker and lineman Erik Furmanek who felt Jackson was already down when the ball came loose.
Morford gave his explanation of the play.
"(Jackson) came through I laid a pretty good hit on him and he went straight down," Morford said. "When he was going down I stuck my hand in there and pulled out the ball. I was laying there and it spun on my hip; I got up and grabbed it off my hip and then took off running."
Turner felt the play should have been ruled dead.
"We thought (Jackson) was down, we actually heard the whistle," Turner said. "That's why our guys slowed up...we thought he was down, but it's one of those things. It's part of the game and there's nothing we can do about it."
Althoff got another shot at the tying TD following a fumble recover by Illinois recruit Merrick Jackson early in the fourth quarter.
The Crusaders marched to the Mercer County 8-yard line when they lost the ball on a handoff exchange between Jackson and quarterback Eric Mertens. Mercer County's Austin Rooth fell on the ball at the 10-yard line for his third fumble recovery of the day.
"The whole game, whatever we wanted we got until we started fumbling the ball," said Althoff's Merrick Jackson, who had nine tackles and a fumble recovery.
Yet another bizarre play went Mercer County's way with less than two minutes remaining.
A hard hit by Althoff's Nolan Abernathy forced the ball loose from Golden Eagles quarterback Tanner Matlick.
Erik Furmanek picked up the loose ball at his own 35 and set sail for the other end. Morford managed to jar the ball loose from Furmanek, but Althoff linebacker Zach Donaldson picked it up and continued on down the right sideline.
At the end of the play, the ball came loose from Donaldson and the ever-present Morford was there to fall on it with 1 minute, 49 seconds remaining.
Television replays showed Donaldson may have been down on the play.
"I had already turned to get ready to put the offense on the field because I thought the guy was down," Turner said. "Then I turned around and they still had the ball."
Althoff outgained Mercer County 357-208 and had 19 first downs to 11 for the Golden Eagles. But the scoreboard held the most important numbers with Mercer County winning its fourth state title.
A 19-yard touchdown pass on fourth down from Mertens to Luke Frazier gave Althoff an early 7-0 lead .
A fumble recovery by Cole Reichert on Mercer County's first drive helped set up the first-quarter TD. Althoff moved methodically down the field on a 19-play, 59-yard scoring drive that lasted 8 minutes, 53 seconds.
Frazier did a nice job of using his body to shield a defender behind him. He made the catch near the goal line and then forced his way in for the touchdown.
After Althoff's defense held Mercer County on fourth-and-3 at the 25, the Golden Eagles got a break when Rooth's second fumble recovery of the game led to the tying touchdown.
Rooth recovered a fumble by Althoff receiver Garland Henley at the Althoff 49.
Two long passes to Tyson Nylin got Mercer County to the Althoff 4-yard line. Jesse Snyder scored on a 2-yard TD run just before the end of the first half and Teryima Manta's extra-point tied it 7-7.
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.