EDGINGTON, Ill. — With the outcome hanging in the balance, El Paso-Gridley coach Stephen Rigsby decided to just put the ball in the hands of his horse.
Rockridge might have done the same. Except its horse was standing on the sidelines in street clothes.
El Paso-Gridley’s Ryne Faulk rushed for 79 yards on a game-clinching 95-yard drive in the fourth quarter Saturday to seal a 29-26 victory over a shorthanded Rockridge team in the opening round of the Illinois Class 2A playoffs, giving the Titans the first postseason victory in the history of the school.
The march put a final punctuation point on a game in which Rockridge (8-2) had to battle from behind all day.
It didn’t help that the Rockets played without star running back Nathan Parchert and starting tackle Myles McCabe, both of whom suffered season-ending injuries last week. If that wasn’t enough, junior quarterback Riley Fetterer was in a walking boot all week and was not quite as explosive as usual.
“We can’t have any excuses," said a disconsolate Fetterer, who still managed to account for 202 yards of offense and have a hand in three touchdowns. “It hurt not to have (Parchert), but that’s an excuse."
Rockridge coach Sam Graves admitted the injuries took their toll both physically and mentally.
“You just can’t replace that," he said of Parchert, who rushed for about 1,500 yards in the regular season. “I know that took some of the wind out of some guys’ sails just getting those injuries. You could just kind of tell all week. It was like a ‘What are we going to do now?’ kind of thing. It still felt like we should have won the game."
With the Rockets focusing their defense on the 185-pound Faulk, who had 1,326 yards coming into the game, the Titans (6-4) used the pass to forge a 13-0 first-quarter lead.
Rockridge recovered to dominate the second quarter and tie the game at 13-13 on Fetterer’s 3-yard run just before halftime, but El Paso-Gridley grabbed a 21-13 edge on Jarrin Landrus’ 59-yard touchdown pass to Faulk on the second play of the third quarter.
Rockridge bounced back again as Thomas Rollason, Parchert’s replacement, turned a routine off-tackle play into a 99-yard scoring run. The Rockets missed the conversion, but at 21-19, it was anyone’s game when the Titans got the ball at their own 5-yard line with 10:28 remaining in the game.
At that point, Faulk had just 15 yards in 12 carries, but Rigsby put the game in his hands.
“We finally found one thing that would work, and we’ve got one really good kid," Rigsby said. “No. 34 is a heckuva player, and he did an amazing job of just running through some guys and, to be honest, just put us on his back to win the game.
“When you’ve got a kid like that, you’ve got to give him the ball."
Faulk sprinted 23 yards for a touchdown on his 11th carry of the 8-minute, 12-second march to make it 27-19.
“I think it was one of those things where you play such a long game and then eventually it wears you down," Graves said. “You could see on that drive that it was kind of going downhill, and they were wearing us out a little bit. And their kids fed off the energy."
The Titans were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after the touchdown, and that, plus a delay of game penalty, forced them to try the two-point conversion from the 23-yard line. But Landrus hit Dylan Reeves on a crossing pattern and he got into the end zone to make it a 10-point game with 2:16 to go.
Rockridge still didn’t quit. Fetterer led his team on a 69-yard drive that was capped by a 16-yard scoring pass to Cody Bush with 36 seconds remaining.
But when EPG recovered the ensuing onside kick, the celebration began.
El Paso-Gridley has been 0-7 previously in postseason play.
“I’m not even sure this is our best team to be honest with you,’’ Rigsby said. “We were 8-1 one year and had to play a road game against an 8-1 team.
“When we win games like this, this is not only for our kids but for all those guys that played before these guys that didn’t get an opportunity to win those games. I feel so terrible for those guys, but I hope they can get a little satisfaction through what we did with these guys.’’