BELLEVILLE — Eric Mertens will never be confused with mobile NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III, but that didn't stop Mertens from using his legs to pull out a South Seven Conference football victory Friday for the Althoff Crusaders.
Mertens ran for two late touchdowns in a wild back-and-forth offensive explosion as Althoff hung on for a 48-44 win.
"I wish I was RG III," joked Mertens, who also threw two TD passes and led an eight-play, 65-yard drive that got the Crusaders (3-4 overall, 2-2 in league play) into the end zone with 37.1 seconds remaining.
"It was a shootout," said Carbondale coach Nick Hill, whose 4-2 team fell to 1-3 in the conference. "Somebody's got to make a stop and they had the ball last. It seemed like whoever had the ball last was going to win."
Carbondale did get one more shot after Althoff scored, but quarterback Justin Hoffmann's deep pass was picked off by Dennis Jackson to seal the win.
Althoff started the game-winning drive on its own 35 with 2:47 remaining. After a running play, Mertens converted three straight passes before a roughing the passer penalty on Carbondale gave the Crusaders a first down at the Terriers' 14-yard line.
Following a sack for a 4-yard loss, Mertens hooked up with Jackson for a 14-yard pass. At the 4, Mertens weaved his way around the left side and into the end zone, holding the ball aloft.
"Their quarterback made plays," Hill said. "We were in Cover-2 man (defense) pretty much the entire drive That's a tough defense to throw on and you've got to give him a lot of credit, and their receivers credit for catching the ball."
It may have seemed like redemption after his interception set up a Carbondale touchdown just before the first half ended.
"At halftime in the locker room he told me that was on him," Althoff coach Ken Turner said. "I trust his ability more than anybody I've coached in a while. I knew he would bounce back and have a good second half."
Mertens did, but he had a lot of help from his receivers, offensive line and running backs. He was 17-of-26 for 218 yards and two TDs.
"When you're playing this position you've got to have a short memory," he said of the earlier turnover. "Over the course of the game, things are going to happen and you've got to shake it off."
Althoff shook off a huge night by Carbondale back Linell Gaston who ran for 151 yards and four TDs on 32 carries.
"They've got a terrific offense, probably the best one outside of (Belleville) West we've faced this year," Turner said. "They've got weapons everywhere and they've got a good quarterback. We figured if we got it to 40 we could win, but we had to get a little bit more than 40."
Althoff led 28-21 at halftime, but Carbondale quickly tied it early in the third quarter on a 1-yard run by Gaston. Mertens found Jackson for a 27-yard TD pass, but Gaston answered with another touchdown run and the Terriers were successful on the two-point conversion pass to grab a 36-35 lead.
Mertens scored on a 7-yard run with 7:26 to play and the two-point conversion pass failed, leaving the Crusaders with a 41-36 lead.
That didn't last long as Hoffmann threw an 11-yard TD pass to Mitch Lauder less than five minutes later. Lauder also caught the two-point conversion pass, giving the Terriers a 44-41 lead.
Gaston started the scoring extravaganza with a 45-yard TD run, also adding a 3-yard run early in the second quarter.
Althoff sophomore Keenen Young answered Gaston's first TD run with a 95-yard kickoff return for a score and Althoff's Austin Mueller added a 25-yard run.
Crusaders freshman Jaylan Bester hauled in a tipped pass for Althoff's third TD of the first quarter on the way to a 21-6 lead.