Latrell Bonner might have thought he had stolen a victory from Belleville East when he ripped the ball from the hands of a defender and tumbled for a 61-yard gain deep into Lancer territory.
The wispy O’Fallon sophomore came up big on a risky fourth-and-21 play to put the Panthers on East’s 20-yard line trailing by a touchdown with just 1:38 left to play. But as it had done twice previously after surrendering big plays to O’Fallon, the Lancers defense stood tall to stop the Panthers in the red zone.
Their efforts preserved a 28-21 victory, Belleville East’s first of the 2018 season.
“We told the kids here before the game to put the first four weeks behind them because we didn’t think the record was indicative of who we are,” said East coach Kris Stephens. “They believed us and bought in to what we wanted to do. It wasn’t a perfect game by any means — there were some mental errors that set us back — but it was much improved and they were resilient. They really wanted the win.”
O’Fallon twice took leads during the game, both times on touchdown passes by senior quarterback Christian Curtis, who completed eight of his first nine attempts for 148 yards and scoring strikes to Bonner and Chris Smith. He ran for the Panthers’ other touchdown.
But, save for that 61-yard, fourth-down hook up with Bonner late in the fourth quarter, the East defense pressured Curtis into completing just 5 of his last 14 attempts for eight yards and an interception. And junior running back Will Osuma, who had 80 yards in the first half against East, was held to 47 the rest of the way.
Stephens credited his defensive coordinator Tim Funk — also his predecessor as head coach — for initiating the halftime adjustment the spurred the turnaround.
“The front seven played a lot better than they had the first four weeks,” Stephens said. “We changed our defensive front a little bit and put some of our big guys in there to stop the run and force them into those third-and-longs. We had some mental errors that got us down in the first half, but we regrouped when we had to and made some big plays.”
In the meantime, the Lancers came up big whenever the Panthers shortened the field.
With the score tied at 14 early the the second quarter, East sophomore defensive back Bryson Ivy intercepted a Curtis pass on the Lancers’ 6 yard line to halt a potential go-ahead scoring drive. In the third quarter, after O’Fallon took possession deep in East territory with a blocked punt, Ivy fell on a Osuma fumble to give the Lancers the ball at their own 2.
Two other times, East forced O’Fallon to turn the ball over on downs.
“They gave us a little different look defensively and took us away from some of the things we wanted to do offensively,” said O’Fallon coach Brandon Joggerst. “We didn’t execute well and that’s really what it comes down to.”
Senior quarterback Kienen Waller was back under center for East after missing the last two weeks with a shoulder injury. He completed 15 of 29 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns to seven different receivers. He found Elijah Nelson on scoring strikes of 12 and 16 yards, the later of which proved to be the game winner at the 10:14 mark of the fourth quarter.
Under pressure from the O’Fallon rush, Waller scrambled to his right before throwing a bullet off his back foot to Nelson a yard into the endzone.
“I was able to roll out and give myself some time,” he said of the play. “Then I just knew I had to look down field and trust my receivers to get open and make a play.”
Waller also connected with Yohance Flager for a 97-yard score in the first quarter that put East on the scoreboard and later scored himself on a 12-yard quarterback draw.
For O’Fallon (1-4), Osuma had 127 yards on 22 carries and Bonner finished with four receptions for a game-best 137 yards.
The Panthers will be back at home next Friday against Edwardsville. The Lancers will play at Alton at 7 p.m.