From the day they arrived together late in training camp, looking for something better than backup roles in nearby Cedar Rapids of the rival Indoor Football League, the Quad-City Steamwheelers knew they had a winning pair in quarterback E.J. Hilliard and wideout Quinton Pedroza.
The dynamic duo proved that sentiment once more Friday night, literally making the Wheelers a 52-48 winner in a Champions Indoor Football road shootout at Kansas City.
Hilliard found Pedroza for the game-winning touchdown pass with four seconds remaining, and Pedroza hung on to the 18-yard strike despite leaping high and tumbling backwards over the end-zone wall.
"That was an ESPN Top Plays of the Week-type catch, especially considering the circumstance," Q-C coach Cory Ross said in the after-glow as the team bus returned home in the wee hours Saturday.
"It was a beautiful ending. E.J. knows all he has to do is give our guys a chance to make a play on the ball. He put it in the perfect spot, where only Q could go get it.
"Two big-time players made big-time plays, both the throw and the catch."
The game-winner answered Kansas City's own heroics, with 2017 CIF MVP Donovan Portiere finding Dee Washington for a 12-yard TD pass with 55 seconds left on a fourth-and-long situation for a 48-45 lead.
The back-and-forth contest featured one tie and 13 lead changes, with the Wheelers (2-2) failing to score only on their first possession, an interception at the goal line.
Pedroza's grab also helped Q-C overcome the game's only sack with 10 seconds left.
"We were still in field-goal range and could have tried to kick to tie on the next play, but we were playing for the win," Ross said. "We still had a timeout left, so we wanted to take one last shot."
The hook-up capped a heroic effort by Hilliard, who was injured on Q-C's first TD of the game. The 29-yard scramble featured Hilliard stiff-arming one defender and dragging another tackler the final few yards into the end zone.
"He was on the sidelines, after every series, getting rubbed down, fixing that calf area, to get back on the field again," Ross said. "He showed great leadership. After what our guys saw, we know now we have a guy you can go into a dark room with (and not be afraid)."
Pedroza was Hilliard's emergency backup for the game, with season-long second-teamer Bryan Hicks leaving for the starting job in IFL Green Bay.
"I think he would have sat if Hicks were there," Ross said. "We kept asking him, but he kept saying he was going to play.
"He just took our team on his back. He would not be denied."
Hilliard rushed for three scores and passed for two more, finishing with 66 yards on 12 carries and another 148 in gains on 14-for-21 passing.
Ross said he called plays to try and get the ball quickly out of his QB's hands, and prevent Hilliard from running, but Kansas City's defense, "kept leaving a lot of the field open for E.J. to hurt them with his legs," the Q-C coach added. "He was banged up, but he took the opportunity, and every time I was cringing, 'Get yards, get down.'"
Hilliard's health should not be an issue next weekend when North Conference-leader Sioux City visits, Ross said.
"It's part ankle and part calf. It looked like a deep bruise," the coach said. "We'll let the swelling go down and take a closer look. But you saw him still doing stuff, so that's a good sign."