Reyondus Estes scrambled away from pressure and completed an off-balanced 23-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Thomas to send the East St. Louis Flyers to the Illinois Class 7A football quarterfinals.
Thomas pulled down the winning score with three seconds left to give the Flyers the 34-28 win over Glenbard North at Clyde C. Jordan Stadium in East St. Louis on Saturday.
It was the third and last time the lead would change hands in the thrilling fourth quarter.
“Rey Estes has got a very big heart and is a kid that is never going to give up,” East St. Louis head coach Darren Sunkett said. “This is his team and he led us to this great moment.”
The top-seeded Flyers (11-0) will be on the road to Villa Park next weekend for the quarterfinal game against No. 23 Willowbrook (8-3), a 49-21 winner over Glenbrook North on Saturday.
Glenbard North fell to 8-3, its season ending on a 25th anniversary rematch of the 1991 state championship game.
The Flyers out-gained the Panthers by more than 200 yards of total offense, but a pair of turnovers deep in their own territory — both fumbles by Thomas — set the Panthers up for touchdowns.
Sunkett was in ear of the All-American wide receiver, telling Thomas he owed his teammates something big. Thomas finished the game with seven catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns.
“I just kept telling him ‘Come on, Jeff, you owe us one’ and he said ‘I’m going to get you one,’” Sunkett said. “That’s Jeff Thomas, one of the best athletes in the county. That’s what’s expected of him. I love that kid and he brought it home for us.”
Estes, who completed 9-of-15 passes for 209 yards and rushed for 103 more, never wavered in his trust for Thomas either.
“Jeff is the best player of the field,” he said. “I knew he was going to make up for the mistakes. When he looked at me and said ‘I got you,’ I believed him. I had his back because I know he had mine.”
East St. Louis had a six point lead at the half, but Thomas’ second fumble of the game set Glenbard North up for the go-ahead score, a 45-yard pass from Shane Conway to Greg Newsome.
The Flyers got the lead back, however, with a five-play, 43-yard drive capped by Estes’ 20-yard run to the corner of the end zone to make it 26-21.
But on Glenbard’s next possession, East Side left Newsome uncovered and all alone on the right sideline. Conway sped the count and hit Newsome on a quick slant that sprung him on a 77-yard touchdown sprint that put the Panthers back on top by two.
“I don’t know exactly what happened, but all of our corners got confused, went to the trip side of the field and left him over there all by himself,” Sunkett said. “We didn’t have anytime outs left so we were stuck. It was just a blown coverage on our part.”
East St. Louis got the ball back with 2:42 left to piece together the game-winning drive.
Estes completed a fourth-and-21 pass to Charlando Robinson to keep the Flyers alive. Then, a pass interference call against Glenbard set East Side up with a first down on the 23 yard line with 9.6 seconds left.
On the Flyers’ final play from scrimmage, Estes was flushed out of the pocket deep behind the line of scrimmage. Falling back off his back foot, he threw toward Thomas, who came down with the catch fighting only teammate Jarrell Anderson for possession.
“My coach told me if I catch a blitz to be sure I roll to the side that I’m throwing to, because all season I’ve been rolling naked away from my pass rush,” Estes said. “ I saw Jeff and I meant the throw to be a bullet, but it slipped because of the balls we were playing with. Jeff did what great players do and made a great play.”
Players from both sides collapsed to the turf either with relief or disappointment. They got up only after referees put three seconds back on the clock.
Anderson scored the two-point conversion to put East Side on top, 34-28. Glenbard attempted an unsuccessful pass-and-lateral on its final play from scrimmage.
Anderson rushed 21 times for 138 yards with touchdowns of 33 and 58 yards.
Glenbard North was held to just 13 yards rushing, despite a 50-yard touchdown run by Vittorio Tricase. Fifteen of the Panthers’ 26 rushing attempts resulted in negative yardage.
Conway finished 12-of-20 for 281 yards and three touchdowns. Newsome scored on each of his three catches for 157 yards.