EDWARDSVILLE — Edwardsville's perfect regular season looked in real jeopardy until the last half minute of the first half.
The Tigers scored twice in the final 28 seconds of the opening half to take charge of what had been a scoreless defensive duel, and they eventually beat the Belleville East Lancers 20-0 on Friday night.
"It was 0-0 and we wanted momentum," said Tigers senior wide receiver Darius Crochrell, who hauled in a 34-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Dan Marinko to get his squad on the scoreboard with 28 seconds left in the second quarter. "They're a good team, and if it would have been 0-0, it would have been a dogfight."
The Lancers fumbled on the ensuing kickoff after the touchdown, enabling the Tigers to go up 10-0 on a 40-yard field goal by Trentan Daley on the final play of the first half.
The win improved the Tigers to 9-0 overall, 7-0 in the Southwestern Conference. It marked their first unbeaten regular season since 2005.
"It's a big accomplishment," Crochrell said. "We've had a lot of tough games, and this one tonight was real tough. It's a real big accomplishment in the Southwestern Conference."
The loss eliminated the Lancers from playoff contention. They ended their season with 4-5 overall record and a 3-4 mark in the SWC.
The Lancers didn't go down without a fight as they kept Edwardsville's offense pinned deep in its own territory throughout most of the first half.
"Like I told our kids, there are no moral victories, but we played really hard tonight and did a lot of good things," East coach Tim Funk said. "You have to give credit to them. They're a very good football team and they made plays when they had to."
The Lancers got a lot of pressure on Marinko, who completed 18 of 32 passes for 208 yards and one touchdown despite being hurried on numerous occasions.
"That was something that we were trying to do, but he is so calm and cool and collected even at the end of the game," Funk said. "He did throw an interception. I'm not sure I've seen them turn the ball over on film all year.
"They're just so disciplined and methodical in what they do. They're so well-schooled, and that's why they are 9-0. Our kids played hard and our defense played its guts out. They were out there just a little too long, and we couldn't keep the ball away from them enough."
The Lancers had a chance to score first after getting in position for a 39-yard field goal by Matt Sotiropolis, but the attempt was short with 5:59 left in the first quarter.
The Tigers put together an 11-play, 85-yard drive that was capped by Marinko's touchdown pass to Crochrell, who ended with 16 catches for 170 yards.
"The O-line gave Danny time, and Danny is a great quarterback," Crochrell said. "You guys can see that. He put the ball right on the money, all I have to do is catch it. Danny did most of the work."
The Lancers' Shamar Welch intercepted Marinko on the third play of the second half and returned the ball to the Edwardsville 17.
The Lancers came away with no points from the turnover as Edwardsville's Craig James intercepted a pass in the end zone and returned it to the Tigers' 15-yard line.
The Tigers went up 17-0 on a 3-yard touchdown run by D'Anthony Knight with 8:58 left in the third quarter.
Knight followed up the touchdown run with an interception in East territory.
A 30--yard field goal by Daley put the Tigers ahead 20-0 with 1:39 left to play.
The Tigers forced three turnovers -- two interceptions and a fumble -- in posting their third shutout this season.
"I'm really proud of the defense, particularly the defensive line and the linebackers for just controlling the line of scrimmage and not giving up any big plays," Edwardsville coach Matt Martin said.
East senior running back Brandon Mason had 31 carries for 101 yards in his final high school game.
"You can't say enough about the kid coming off two broken legs in the last year," Funk said. "He's about 160 or 165 pounds and a real tough. We're going to miss him dearly. He comes to work, and he did again tonight."
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.