There was nothing wrong with the Edwardsville offense Saturday. But it was the Tigers’ defense that stole the show.
Junior Norman Harris had a key interception in the third quarter, one of three in the game by Edwardsville, sparking the Tigers to a 28-25 victory over Minooka in the Class 8A quarterfinals.
“In all these games, everybody’s good,” Tigers coach Matt Martin said. “It’s a possession by possession game, and if you can steal a possession and not give up a possession, it’s huge.
“We needed (Harris’ interception). That was a back-breaker. That was a bend-but-don’t-break (series). The kids didn’t break and made a big play.”
It was the ninth consecutive victory for 26th-seeded Edwardsville (9-3), which will play host to sixth-seeded Loyola Academy (11-1) on Friday or Saturday. Minooka, seeded 15th, finished 9-3.
The Tigers, despite being a lower seed than Loyola Academy, will receive the home game because it has only hosted once in the postseason. The Ramblers have had two home games in the playoffs.
Edwardsville led 21-17 at halftime, but Minooka took the second-half kickoff and marched from its 8-yard line to the Edwardsville 8. On a third-and-3 play, senior quarterback Zach Gessner rolled left and spotted senior Adrian Page in the end zone.
Gessner didn’t get a lot on his pass, and Harris made a clean pick and returned it to the Edwardsville 36. Twelve plays later, Tigers senior quarterback Kendall Abdur-Rahman broke up the middle for a 14-yard touchdown that made it 28-17 with 56 seconds left in the third quarter. It was Abdur-Rahman’s 26th rushing touchdown of the season.
“I got around the corner,” Gessner said. “As a right-handed QB, rolling to the left is a little bit tougher. I could have put more on that ball, but I just kind of let it go. I knew right away when I threw it, I didn’t put enough on it. You’ve got to put more on that. You’ve got to be smart there. I could have thrown it out of bounds. You’ve got to take care of the ball.”
The Indians got within 28-25 with 6:04 left and had the ball again after forcing Edwardsville to punt. But senior Rodney Smith intercepted Gessner with 2:01 left. The Tigers picked up a first down on a pair of runs by freshman Justin Johnson, then ran out the clock.
It’s the first trip to the semifinals for Edwardsville since 2013, when it fell 34-7 to Mount Carmel in the Class 7A playoffs. The Tigers also reached the semifinals in Class 7A in 2005, again losing 27-7 to Mount Carmel.
“This is huge,” Abdur-Rahman said. “With everyone doubting us this year (after) going 0-3 at the beginning of the season, it’s just huge. It’s a great feeling. We’ve got another week to play football, another week to get better.
“Our defense did a great job; our defense won us this game. They worked their butts off all week in practice and our scout team did a great job of showing us (Minooka’s) looks.”
Edwardsville jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first six-plus minutes.
First, Smith returned a punt 50 yards for a touchdown that made it 7-0 at the 7:36 mark. Sophomore Eric Epenesa then recovered a fumbled kickoff that led to Abdur-Rahman’s 6-yard touchdown run with 5:56 left in the first quarter.
“I think it was huge,” Martin said of the fast start. “If you’re asking me whether I felt comfortable, no. But to get up 14-0 helps, obviously. (It’s important) any time you can put points on the board, whenever it happens.”
Minooka got within 14-6 on Gessner’s 30-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Connor Etzkorn, and after Johnson’s fumble was recovered by senior Tyler Haase, the Indians knotted the game at 14 on senior Jack Krope’s 2-yard touchdown run and a two-point conversion pass from Gessner to Paige.
Edwardsville took the lead for good at 21-14 with 8:08 remaining in the second quarter on Abdur-Rahman’s 20-yard touchdown pass to senior Donovan Booker on a third-and-14 play. Booker leaped, made the grab in traffic and held on to the ball after being hit.
Minooka sophomore Trent Hudak’s 29-yard field goal late with 1:14 to play in the second quarter made it 21-17 at the intermission.
Senior Ryan Connelly also had an interception for the Tigers, who have won their three playoff games by a total of 10 points. Can the road be any tougher?
“We’ll have to play probably our greatest game of the year to beat Loyola,” Martin said. “But we have a chance, and if you give this team a chance, they’ve proven they’ll take advantage of it.”
David Wilhelm: @DavidMWilhelm