CHAMPAIGN — Lost fumbles and missed opportunities left the Althoff Crusaders wondering what might have been Friday in their first trip to the state football finals since 1990.
Althoff lost six of seven fumbles --one inside the 10-yard line and another inside the 20 -- in a 14-7 loss to Mercer County on Friday in the Class 2A state title game.
"It was first place or bust," Althoff senior lineman Merrick Jackson said. "We got this far and we failed."
It's tough to view at second place in the state as a failure. But the Crusaders were too fresh from defeat to take many positives away from a windy, chilly afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
"It was unreal getting here, but it's going to stink the rest of your life losing," said Althoff senior linebacker Erik Furmanek, who had a team-high 10 tackles and also recovered a fumble.
While they had a decided edge in yardage (357-208) and passing yards (248-93), the Crusaders also held all-state quarterback Tanner Matlick to a 7-for-14 day for 93 yards and no TDs.
"We limited the damage when it mattered today and came up with a huge turnover," Mercer County coach Nat Zunkel said.
"It always hurts whenever you have a game like this and you don't come out with the win," Jackson said. "You don't know what to feel because you had a good game so you want to feel good -- but you lost so you just feel awful."
Althoff quarterback Eric Mertens completed 20-of-29 passes for 248 yards and one touchdown while Dennis Jackson finished with 101 yards on 23 carries.
The day also included a breakout performance by Althoff freshman receiver Keenen Young, who caught eight passes for 89 yards and had an interception on defense.
Young also lost a fumble following a long pass play in the second half, a common occurrence Friday that kept sabotaging the Crusaders' state title hopes.
"We made too many mistakes to win the ballgame," Turner said. "I really felt like they didn't stop us too much; I felt like we did some good things to slow down their high-powered offense, but we kept shooting ourselves in the foot.
"We'd drive the ball down the field on them and then we'd fumble. When you make mistakes like that, sometimes you fall short."
Morford's big day
Mercer County linebacker Devin Morford scored the game-winning touchdown on a state finals record 95-yard fumble recovery with 8:31 left in the third quarter.
He had five tackles, forced a fumble and recovered two fumbles.
"It was amazing," said Morford, who was asked about the sequence before his long run.
"I took the ball from the (back's) hands and it spun on my hip," Morford said. "I picked it up and I didn't even know if the play was over or not, so I just kept running until I scored."
After that, he just reacted.
"The crowd pretty much got me going," Morford said. "(Teammate) Bryce Skiles was there and he was telling me to go, so I just took off and scored a touchdown."
The Althoff coaches and players felt that Jackson's knee was already down when he fumbled.
"If you look at the play, everybody stopped running except for the one guy (Morford)," Althoff coach Ken Turner said. "It is what it is. If we didn't make the small mistakes, then we probably go away with the win."
Trickeration at the end
Trailing 14-7 with 30 seconds remaining, Althoff took over on its own 24-yard line hoping for a miracle.
On first down, Mertens passed to Young, who completed the hook-and-ladder play by flipping the ball to the trailing Dennis Jackson for a 27-yard gain.
On the game's final play, Luke Frazier caught a pass and flipped it to Furmanek, who tossed it to Erik Krause. The ball wound up in the hands of Althoff's Nolan Abernathy, who was tackled as time expired. Am illegal forward pass penalty on the play was declined.
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.