TROY — With the season -- and more then likely his high school career -- a little more than four minutes from ending, Althoff quarterback Eric Mertens stepped up.
Mertens and Malik Easley connected on a 65-yard screen pass for a touchdown with 4 minutes and 21 seconds remaining, as Althoff kept its playoff hopes alive Friday with a wild 40-35 victory over Triad.
Triad, which trailed by two touchdowns in both halves, took a 35-34 lead with 4:49 left on a 22-yard run by quarterback Jason Barbour.
But on the second play following the kickoff, Mertens spun away from the pocket and lofted a screen pass to Easley on the right side of the field. Running with a wall of blockers ahead of him, Easley outran everybody to the end zone to give the Crusaders (5-4) the lead for good.
"What can I say? Malik is fast," Mertens said. "I have a lot of confidence in these guys. We didn't get down. We held our poise."
Triad (2-7) got the ball back, but a personal foul penalty prevented any hopes of another rally.
The Crusaders' third straight win means they will now have to wait to see if they are in the Class 4A playoff field. The pairings in all eight classes will be released Saturday evening.
"We had 33 playoff points coming in and the magic number, I think, is 38. We've done our part. Now it's up to the IHSA. I hope we make it. These kids really deserve it," Althoff coach Ken Turner said. "We lost games we should have won, blew big leads late against Mount Vernon and Mascoutah earlier in the year. We've got to learn to put people away better. Hopefully we'll get another chance.
"Once 2-4, we needed to win three in a row to have a shot. We did that. I'm proud of my kids."
Mertens finished 19-of-35 for 354 yards and five touchdowns. His 7-yard strike to Brett Silvestri with 6:32 left put Althoff up 34-29.
But Barbour, who rushed for 220 yards and four scores, answered to give the Knights back the lead 35-34 with 4:49 left.
It didn't last.
"This one is tough to take. The kids played their hearts out and gave a great effort, as they have all year," Triad coach Paul Bassler said. "We still had a chance after they scored, but that last drive symbolizes our season. We had penalties and mistakes all year, which hurt us."
Trailing 28-16 after three quarters, Triad scored twice in 44 seconds to take the lead.
Senior Mike Averill made the score 28-22 with an 8-yard run with 10:39 left.
Althoff then fumbled the ensuing kickoff and two plays later, Averill dashed 28 yards to give Triad a 29-28 lead.
With Mertens completing 9-of-11 passes for 187 yards and Easley rushing for 53 yards, Althoff scored on four of seven first-half possessions to build a 28-16 lead.
The Knights fumbled the opening kickoff and Althoff recovered on the Knights' 33-yard line.
Mertens then hooked up with Dennis Jackson for a 30-pass play, and when Jackson ran in from the Triad 3 on the next play, the Crusaders led 7-0 with 11:21 remaining in the first period.
Mertens, who competed eight passes in a row to end the first half, put Althoff up 14-0 with a 20-yard pass to Mueller to start the second quarter.
The Mertens-Mueller connection worked again later in the first half, this time from 30 yards. Mertens added a 4-yard scoring pass to Keenen Young midway through the period.
Barbour didn't start well, but the 6-foot-3, 195-pound senior, ended the first half with a rush. Running the option, he scored on a 40-yard run to cut the lead to 14-8.
Finishing the first half with 120 yards on 11 carries, Barbour added an 8-yard scoring run late in the half, which ended on a 23-yard goal by Triad's Dan Hilling.