EUREKA — The Eureka football team scraped, clawed and held on with everything they had to preserve a 50-49 victory over Lakeland on Saturday.
It wasn't sealed until the final play of the game, but once the final horn went off, maroon jerseys swarmed the field in ecstasy, celebrating the Red Devils' first win over the Muskies since 1995.
"I'm at a loss for words, honestly," senior quarterback Drew Barth (Minonk, Ill./Fieldcrest) said. "They beat us by one last year. We had a tough taste in our mouth, and everybody fought, battled all the way through. And to come out on top … especially the past couple of weeks, what we've been through, it's huge. A huge win for us."
With the win, the Red Devils scored their second Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference victory of the season, improving to 4-4 on the season and 2-3 in league play.
They emphatically bounced back from back-to-back losses by a combined four points, and succeeded in handing the visiting Muskies their first NACC loss of the year.
Barth threw for 309 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 73 yards and two scores more to finish with 382 all-purpose yards and six TDs on the day. James Douglas III (Orlando, Fla./Deltona) hauled in six receptions for a career-high 216 yards and three scores, and four other Red Devils had at least one reception.
But perhaps none were more crucial than Grant Jochum's (Minonk, Ill./Fieldcrest) 18-yard pick-up with less than two minutes left in the game.
With Eureka clinging to a one-point lead and at risk of giving the ball back to the Muskies with plenty of time to piece together the winning drive, Barth dropped back on 3rd and 7 at the Eureka 42.
After spinning away from a tackler and narrowly avoiding a sack, the senior quarterback found his former high school teammate on the left side for a much-needed first down. EC was eventually forced to punt, but Tanner Kuhne's (Princeton, Ill./Princeton) pinned the Muskies back at the six.
"I saw him coming up, and I saw he had a just tried spinning out of it," Barth said of the crucial play. "I saw Grant there on the side, and I trust him, going back to high school and everything."
"I get to the sideline and Coach (Morgan) Murph(y) is like, 'You didn't have to be that acrobatic; you could have just thrown it to him right away," he said with a laugh. "But there's so many things going through (your head), I just tried to make a play as much as I could."
The Muskies started their last drive with 29 seconds left on the clock. They began with a 12-yard pick-up to the 18, forced an incompletion and got called for pass interference, moving them up to their own 33 and keeping their hopes alive with 11 second remaining.
On the next play, senior corner back Trevon Moore (Aurora, Ill./Waubonsie Valley) stepped up and forced another incompletion that he thought was a forced fumble. It wasn't quite the big turnover the Red Devils needed to seal it, but two plays later, senior Matt Sutton (Dunlap, Ill./Dunlap) secured Lakeland quarterback Charl'Tez Nunnery's last-second heave to officially preserve the win.
To Moore and the defense, this was the moment that had evaded them the past few weeks.
"It's nerve-wracking (to be in that situation), but the last couple of weeks we've been on the field last," Moore said. "Before we broke out, I pretty much said, 'We let the offense down the last couple of weeks, let's make a statement for ourselves,' and we came out and pulled through."
Similar to last year's 56-55 shootout victory for Lakeland, this one started fast. By the end of the first quarter, both teams had put up 20 points.
For EC, there was a 48-yard TD pass to Douglas, a 21-yard sprint by Barth and a wide-open TD reception for Brett Charlton (Eureka, Ill./Eureka). For Lakeland, there was a 2-yard TD run by Larry Rivers, following a 55-yard pass from Nunnery to Brice Kensey, a 30-yard run by Dezmon Eddie and a 65-yard run by Eddie.
Eddie finished with three rushing touchdowns and 207 all-purpose yards. Nunnery threw for two touchdowns, one pick and 248 yards, and Kensey and Chris Bustamante combined for 154 yards and two scores on 11 catches.
In the second quarter, Lakeland and EC traded touchdowns, with a 16-yard TD pass to Douglas tying it up at 27-all. Then, on EC's next possession, Kuhne's 24-yard field goal on 4th and goal gave EC a 30-27 edge that remained the score at halftime.
Eureka scored twice and Lakeland scored once in the third, with a 65-yard bomb to Douglas putting EC ahead 43-34 with 1:33 left in the penultimate period.
Lakeland put the pressure on with a quick touchdown by Eddie that trimmed EC's lead to two points at 43-41 early in the fourth.
The Red Devils responded with 42-yard scoring drive that ended with a 4-yard touchdown rush by Douglas and featured a game-long 31-yard rush by running back Joe Hughes (Normal, Ill./University). Hughes finished with 107 yards on 22 carries.
The Muskies' last score of the game occurred with 5:16 left, when Nunnery connected with Bustamante on a 19-yard reception, setting up EC's final clock-chewing, nine-play drive and subsequent game-sealing stop.
The EC's defense's leading tackler was Alex Brittain (Eureka, Ill./Eureka), who notched nine tackles, followed by Daetayvian Woodson (Sherman, Ill./Williamsville), who had eight, and Mason Diederich (Washington, Ill./Washington) and Austin McCarty (Oakwood, Ill./Oakwood), both of whom registered seven.
The cathartic win featured critical sequences and key plays in all three phases.
"Today was a great game, man," Douglas said. "I've got the best QB. We talk so much, we just connect and it showed today. And the defense today … we finally got it."
The Red Devils (4-4, 3-2 NACC) will be back at McKinzie Field next Saturday for a senior day meeting with Concordia Wisconsin (2-6, 2-3) at 1 p.m.