For three and a half quarters, River Valley succeeded where others failed during the 2013 season. The Falcons kept Erie/Prophetstown running back Nick Williams out of the end zone. The result of this triumph was a 30-28 deficit in the fourth quarter. Jordan Chandler's 25-yard touchdown run made it 36-28, but it didn't pull the Panthers out of the woods.
With seven minutes to go, there was plenty of time left for River Valley to steal a road playoff victory and for a little Panthers adversity. And after starting Panthers quarterback Ethan Howard came up limp on a 21-yard keeper, there was even room for doubt to creep in.
"He's such a huge part of our team. He's our play-caller, so we're just feeling for him," said Owen McConnell, senior Panthers offensive lineman.
The coaches shut down Howard for the rest of the game, handing Chandler — a sophomore — quarterback duties. Erie/Prophetstown proceeded to pound it up the gut on four consecutive plays, resulting in Williams' first touchdown on a 14-yard bruiser. The senior back also added the two-pointer and the Panthers were back in their comfort zone, 44-28.
"We're not going to let this happen to one of our brothers," Williams said. "We really had to let them know that we're not going to let them walk all over us."
Chris Bauer's interception stalled the next Falcons drive, and Williams added another score for insurance. What was once a nail-biter turned into a convincing 50-28 Panthers victory, the school's first home postseason win in history.
"I'm proud of you all," E/P coach Chuck Milem said to his players in the post-game huddle. "You're setting history here. Let's keep it going."
Without Williams' two scores, Erie/Prophetstown still might have eked out the victory with the late eight-point advantage. After the Falcons controlled the ball for 10 of 12 minutes in the third quarter, the Panthers' defense proceeded to shut down River Valley's balanced offense, allowing only 55 total yards over the last 11 minutes of the game.
But players spoke of how crucial Williams' runs and Chandler's poise were when the game was on the line.
"Nick's eyes definitely popped up when his quarterback went down," Milem said. "He knew he had to put this team on his shoulder, and that's what he did."
On Chandler, Milem added: "The kid's a gamer. This is what he lives for — moments like that. We don't bat an eye when that kid comes in for us."
"With Chandler only being a sophomore, us senior linemen take him under our wing," McConnell said. "We just kept giving him confidence, and it felt great."
Williams ran for 156 yards on 22 carries. Chandler accounted for 93 rushing yards and the offense ran without a hiccup despite losing Howard and his 101. Each player accounted for two Panthers touchdowns.
Both sides of the ball worked in E/P's favor at the start. The Panthers opened with a nine-play, 70-yard drive that ended in an 11-yard Bauer sweep for six. On River Valley's first possession, the Panthers line capitalized on a botched pitch, pouncing on the loose ball in Falcons' territory and setting up their second score.
E/P had mounted a 14-0 lead through the first quarter and built it to 30-16 before halftime. The Panthers scored on their first four possessions on 31 rushing attempts and some well-timed trickery.
With four minutes left in the half, Milem's team marched from its 49 to the Falcons' 26 on three straight runs. He pounded Williams up the middle twice in a row, then opened the play book. Howard faked the handoff to E/P's workhorse, then flicked it to Bauer up the middle for a wide-open 26-yard touchdown score.
"We've had that in all year, but we don't pull it out to often. It was good to see them connect on it," Milem said.
River Valley quickly set a new tone in the third quarter with its own trickery. On the Falcons' first drive of the second half, a 14-play drive ended on a 21-yard halfback pass from Nathan Helle to Austin Courtway. Helle recovered a fumble on the next E/P possession, and Valley's next drive carried over into the final frame and ended on a Tom Miller punch-in from the 1.
"We didn't have the ball at all in the third," Milem said. "They did a great job of sustaining drives."
The touchdown cut the Panthers' lead to 30-28.
"I didn't really feel like I was out of place (when Howard went down)," Chandler said.
Bauer, Williams, Howard and Chandler combined on five plays and 53 rushing yards on the next drive, highlighted by Chandler's option pitch touchdown. It resolidified the lead at 36-28, opening the door for Williams' late insurance runs.
While celebrating the historic win, Milem was quick to remind the team there's a bigger prize on the line as E/P tries to evolve from first home playoff win to first second-round victory. The Panthers await the winner of today's Stillman Valley-Bloomington Central Catholic and won't know until then if they'll receive another home playoff game.
"We're not ready for this journey to be done," Millem said in the post-game huddle.
ERIE/PROPHETSTOWN 50, RIVER VALLEY 28
RV 0 16 6 8 — 28
E/P 14 16 0 20 — 50
EP — Chris Bauer 24-yard run (run failed) 8:02
EP — Ethan Howard 25-yard run (Nick Williams run) 4:02
RV — Tom Miller 11-yard pass to Evan Koehler (Nathan Helle run) 11:38
EP — Jordan Chandler 5-yard run (Howard run) 6:31
EP — Howard 26-yard pass to Bauer (Howard run) 3:54