It was easy to see from the first half that this was no ordinary matchup pitting a No. 5 seed against a 12th seed as No. 12 Decatur Eisenhower matched the Bulldogs with two touchdowns in the first half in an evenly played first 24 minutes on Saturday afternoon in a Class 5A first round playoff game. The only difference was a missed extra point by the Panthers.
But it looked as if Highland was in good shape to hold serve after going up by two scores on two separate occasions in the second half.
The Bulldogs first went on top 27-13 after scoring touchdowns on consecutive possessions to open the second half on a 63-yard jaunt from sophomore quarterback Garrett Marti followed by a 26-yard touchdown pass from Marti to freshman Sam LaPorta.
It looked even more promising after Highland recorded a safety to go up 29-20 and then started the ensuing drive at the Panthers’ 44-yard line with only 8:24 to play in the game.
But Eisenhower blanked Highland the rest of the way and had its full offensive firepower on display en route to scoring three touchdowns in a row in the final 5:55 to stun the favored Bulldogs 39-29.
“We were a little worried because we were down two scores, but the way we play, we never count ourselves out,” said Eisenhower coach Drew Wagers, whose team improved to 7-3 and will face fourth-seeded Champaign Central in the second round next week after Central doubled up Jacksonville 80-40 on Saturday. “Two scores is nothing to us when we get on the gas pedal so we just knew we had to keep playing. And I knew being down two scores in the fourth quarter we had to get a big hit.”
After a miserable Highland punt gave the Panthers great field position near midfield, Wagers made the call for a trick play that worked to perfection at the exact moment it was needed.
On first down, Eisenhower junior quarterback Cayleb Dehority threw a lateral pass to the right to junior Stephon Jarrett and he threw a bomb down the middle of the field to senior Colton Lockwood that resulted in a 51-yard gain down to the Bulldog 3.
On the very next play, senior Salat Al-Nurridin rumbled in for his third score of the game and the Panthers cut the deficit to 29-27 with still 5:55 remaining.
“We practiced it all week and I knew we might need this and we called it at the right time and we got in,” Wagers said of the trick play. “Then we put another score on them and just kept it going.”
After forcing a fourth-and-4 with Highland backed up in its own end, Bulldog coach Jimmy Warnecke tried to catch Eisenhower off guard and went for a huge gamble with a fake-punt call. But it backfired as the pass fell incomplete and the Panthers took over on downs.
But it looked as if Eisenhower hurt itself bad with two 15-yard major penalties on the first play, one for an illegal chop block and the other for unsportsmanlike conduct. A first-and10 became a first-and-40 at back at Highland’s 45.
But any worry for the Panthers was quickly erased as a 15-yard completion from Dehority to junior Stephen Bobbitt was followed by Dehority rolling right and firing back across the field for a 30-yard TD strike to Lockwood to give Eisenhower the lead for good at 33-29.
There was still time for Highland, starting from its own 7 with 2:59 left and two timeouts. But the Panthers’ defense forced another turnover on downs, this time at the Bulldog 35.
Four plays later, Eisenhower junior Drew Thaxton rumbled in from 20 yards to clinch the game at 39-29 with only 1:04 left.
“They made some plays and they have a big-play offense,” said Highland coach Jimmy Warnecke, whose team finished the season with an 8-2 record. “Our defense did a great job today, but we didn’t play a real good fourth quarter on either side of the ball. But I am proud of my guys. It’s unfortunate how things work out sometimes but you have got to finish. Whether it be a block or a tackle or a football game or in life, you’ve got to finish it and we didn’t do that today. You can second-guess stuff or double-think stuff.”
Warnecke knew he would be second-guessed about the fake punt call from inside his own 20-yard line.
“I’m sure I’ve got everybody in the town of Highland who was at this game calling me a ‘jerk’ ” he said. “But hey, it was a gamble and it wasn’t off the cuff. There was a lot of reasoning I had for it and that is going to stay with me. But right or wrong, I took a gamble and it didn’t pay off.”
Two reasons Warnecke called the fake punt were that his team was going against the wind and the punting game had been struggling mightily.
Dehority had a strong game after completing 17-of-23 passes for well over 200 yards to go with three touchdown passes. Dehority has 36 TD tosses on the season and is just shy of 2,500 yards passing on the year.
In addition to his 3-yard TD run, Al-Nurridin also hauled in a 31-yard TD reception from Dehority late in the first quarter and plunged in from near the goal line with 0.3 of a second left in the third quarter. Lockwood and Bobbitt had the other two TD receptions for the Panthers. Lockwood finished with seven catches for 135 yards and that put him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
“They were dropping eight and were only rushing three, but I will say that we have some of the best receivers in the state, I promise you that,” Wagers said. “And I’ve got one of the best quarterbacks in the state so no matter what anybody tries to do to us we’re still going to try to throw the ball because that’s our game. This is exciting and it’s an unbelievable moment.”
Wagers had praise for the Bulldogs, especially for Highland’s offensive line which helped Marti and Rakers each rush for 146 yards on 21 carries. Marti also ran for two touchdowns and threw for another for another score after completing 11-of-19 passes for 70 yards. Rakers had one rushing TD.
Defensively for Highland, senior linebacker Sam Teipe led the charge with 11 total tackles (10 solos), two quarterback sacks, including one that resulted in a fumble and takeaway for the Bulldogs.
In addition on defense for the Bulldogs, senior defensive end Justin Haase added seven solo tackles and one tackle assist, while senior defensive end Cody Zobrist added a fumble recovery and three solo tackles, and sophomore defensive end Josh Burke had one sack and three solo tackles.
Teipe’s strip-fumble sack and Zobrist recovered the fumble at Eisenhower’s 21-yard line led to the game’s first score as Rakers raced in from 13 yards out to put Highland on top 7-0 with 3:23 to play in the opening quarter.
“They gave us a fight and we knew it was going to be tough and we knew they were going to be run-heavy,” Wagers said. “They kept eating us up because they’ve got some big boys up front. If we didn’t make those couple of key stops and get those quick scores, it definitely would have been a different turnout. Their line on both sides was unbelievable. That was probably the biggest line we’ve faced all year and we’ve played Sacred Heart-Griffin. They compete with Sacred Heart-Griffin up front so hats off to them. But we just battled and battled and gave it our all.”