Althoff was on the right road to another berth in the Class 4A semifinals Saturday.
But a flurry of penalties kept Rochester’s hopes alive, and the Rockets capitalized by overcoming a 19-point deficit to defeat the Crusaders 48-47 in the quarterfinals before a crowd of more than 3,000 at Lindenwood Stadium.
The comeback was culminated by a 45-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Nic Baker to senior wideout D’Ante Cox with 2:03 to play. Cox, who recently returned from a broken arm, made the catch in the open field and raced into the end zone.
“It meant a lot to me,” Cox said. “I wasn’t making plays in the first half. I was dropping balls, but then I came back and fought through adversity. I have to give it to my team because they helped me out when I was hurting. I had to make plays. I’m glad. I’m happy.”
There was no joy in Althoff’s postgame huddle. The Crusaders fueled the Rockets’ dramatic turnaround with 21 penalties for 182 yards.
A holding call on fourth-and-12 negated an interception by Crusaders junior Justin Strong and set up a first-down pass by Rochester that was followed by its clinching touchdown.
“I really don’t want to make a comment about the penalties because I don’t want to say the wrong thing,” Althoff coach Ken Turner said. “I felt like it was a great play by Justin that probably would have finished the game off. The holding call ... It was a great play (by Strong). The kid picked the ball off.
“A lot of great athletes, a lot of great plays. I feel like we had a chance to put our foot on their throat early on. We left them in the game. A good team like that has a chance to come back on you if you leave them in the game. We didn’t finish. The penalties killed us.”
Rochester (11-1), which avenged a 46-42 defeat to Althoff in the quarterfinals last year, will play host to Canton (10-2) in the semifinals Friday or Saturday. Althoff (11-1) was unable to protect a 47-28 lead it built with 6:45 to play in the third quarter.
Althoff had a chance on its final possession, which started on its 35-yard line.
The Crusaders marched to Rochester’s 33, but senior quarterback Trey Mosley was sacked for an 8-yard loss to give Althoff a fourth-and-11 from the 41.
On the next play, Mosley was surrounded by three defenders. He threw across his body and found senior Edwyn Brown wide-open for a 15-yard gain to the 26.
“Phenomenal,” Turner said of Mosley’s clutch play.
But after a pass to senior Jordan Goodwin went for a 1-yard loss, Mosley threw consecutive incompletions, and on the second, intentional grounding was called.
That made it fourth-and-18 from the 39 with 10 seconds left, and Rochester sealed the outcome when senior Nick Damarin sacked Mosley.
“I love these kids so much,” Rochester coach Derek Leonard said. “I love the football program and our community. To beat a team like that (being) 19 down, you’ve got to be a little different. You’ve got to have something about you. Our program is that. It’s proven it over time, but man, I think this even took it to another step.”
Leonard was grateful for the Althoff penalties. The Rockets had just six penalties for 49 yards.
“We’ve seen them shoot themselves in the foot in the past,” Leonard said. “It is what it is. That’s part of it. They’re a great team. Coach Turner does a great job. It’s unfortunate someone had to lose this game because we know how good we are and how good they are. I think it was supposed to go down this way.”
Senior Jaylon Bester had 22 carries for 223 yards and five touchdowns for Althoff. Mosley finished 22-for-35 for 318 yards and two touchdowns.
Bester’s touchdown runs were from 21, 19, 6, 9 and 79 yards. The 79-yard run down the left sidelines put the Crusaders ahead 47-28.
Baker was 17-for-31 for 317 yards and four touchdowns. Cox had seven catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
“He played great,” Leonard said of Cox. “He struggled early on. That was all our kids. They all struggled early on. It was a great catch by D’Ante (on the winning touchdown). But every one of them made plays at certain times.”
Wild first half
Althoff led 33-28 at halftime, closing the second quarter in spectacular fashion.
With just over one second to play, Mosley took the snap and hooked up with senior Jordan Goodwin on a 43-yard touchdown pass. Goodwin made the leaping catch between three defenders despite being interfered with on the play. The two-point conversion failed.
“He does what he does,” Turner said of Goodwin. “Goody’s that good. You know that.”
It was the end to a crazy half that saw Althoff fall behind 7-0 on Rochester’s first play from scrimmage, then take a 21-7 lead. The Rockets tied the game at 21, but the Crusaders took a 27-21 lead on Bester’s 6-yard touchdown run with 2:36 to play in the half.
But Bester then had a punt blocked deep in Althoff’s end. The Rockets gained possession at 9, and Matt Wike scored on a 3-yard run three plays later to put Rochester ahead 28-27.