BELLEVILLE — With Althoff struggling at times during the first half Saturday, it took a fly pattern by Austin Mueller to ignite a fire under the offense.
Mueller got behind the Herrin defense and finished off a 60-yard touchdown pass from Eric Mertens that helped provide momentum for an eventual 21-14 Class 4A second-round playoff victory.
"It gets me excited, he always makes good plays," said Mertens, who piled up 281 of his 334 yards passing in the first half.
Mueller finished with four catches for 130 yards, including 122 yards in the second half.
Althoff (7-4) also took advantage of four Herrin turnovers as the Crusaders advanced to the 4A quarterfinals. They will be on the road next week against three-time defending state champion Rochester (11-1), which defeated Mater Dei 56-28 on Saturday.
Mertens also threw an 11-yard TD pass to sophomore Keenen Young midway through the third quarter and the Crusaders held off a furious comeback bid by the Tigers.
Mertens was 22-of-34 for 334 yards with two TDs. Althoff coach Ken Turner felt his team was able to exploit Herrin's pass defense strategy.
"They were playing loose, they didn't want us to get behind them," Turner said. "We were able to sneak behind them a couple times and felt like they were giving us everything underneath. (Mertens) read everything well and just took what they gave us."
Althoff senior Collin McClellan had a fumble recovery and interception on defense. McClellan's interception with a minute, 58 seconds remaining seemingly sealed the win, but Herrin (8-3) got one more shot after Althoff's Donovan Gagen missed a 34-yard field goal with 1:06 to play.
Taking over at its own 20, Herrin reached the 50-yard line on several short passes before time expired. An 8-yard pass to Josh Haynes turned out to be the final play, as the Herrin coaching staff argued with the officials to let them run one more play.
"They never stopped the clock to move the chains," Herrin coach Jason Karnes said. "The clock should have been stopped at 10 seconds. It was a first down and then they never moved the chains, 10 seconds of the clock just ran off. That's what I was upset about."
An interception by Herrin's Patrick McCowen early in the fourth quarter led to a 6-yard touchdown run by the Tigers' Chris Butler with 4:56 remaining.
Chase Merrill, who finished with 93 yards rushing, added the two-point conversion to cut Althoff's lead to 21-14. The Tigers ran out of time and Althoff advanced, but Turner wasn't overly happy.
"I'm happy with the win, but we've got a lot of stuff we need to clean up before next week," Turner said.
Mertens threw for 281 yards in the first half on 14-of-23 passing.
Herrin blocked an early field-goal attempt and a punt, and the punt block set up a 12-yard touchdown run by Merrill. The extra-point try was wide and Herrin led 6-0.
A 40-yard pass from Mertens to Mueller helped set up a 1-yard TD run by Mertens early in the second quarter. Donovan Gagen's extra-point gave the Crusaders a 7-6 lead.
After the teams traded turnovers, the Althoff defense stopped Herrin by a couple inches on fourth-and-1 at the Althoff 44.
Althoff used two timeouts during Herrin's final offensive possession in the first half and the strategy paid off.
Taking over on their own 40 with 53.5 seconds remaining in the half, the Crusaders scored when Mueller blazed a trail down the left sideline and was wide-open for the 60-yard TD pass from Mertens.
The only question was whether Mueller would hang on to the ball, and he did.
"We were able to get our playmakers in open space," Mertens said. "The way they were covering us, we thought we could run what we ran and hopefully get some big plays out of it."
Herrin's eight-game winning streak came to an end and Karnes felt the four turnovers had a lot to do with it.
"We haven't turned the ball over four times in probably the last four or five games combined," Karnes said. "That's just not going to get it done. I thought we ran the ball pretty effectively and did some things against them.
"We had a chance to tie it at the end. That's all you can ask for."