By Jon Gremmels
Herald Sports Editor
---- — ERIE, Ill. – It didn't take a review of the game video for Erie/Prophetstown football coach Chuck Milem to dissect his team's 24-14 loss to Stillman Valley on Saturday afternoon in the second round of the Illinois Class 2A playoffs. He could vividly recall the key handful of plays that swung the outcome in the Cardinals' favor.
Tristan Elliott was in on most of them.
Elliott rushed for a game-high 229 yards on 20 carries, but three of them were keys to the victory. Those three plays, along with two fumbles and a couple of penalties were all that stood between the Panthers and a trip to the state quarterfinals.
“There was that run, the turnovers and a couple of offside penalties,” Milem said.
“That was the difference in the game, in my opinion,” Erie/Prophetstown senior Chris Bauer said of those key plays.
Playing without three-year starting quarterback Ethan Howard didn't help E/P's chances, either. He suffered season-ending knee injuries in the first round.
None of Elliott's big plays was bigger than the first one.
With the Cardinals (9-2) facing a fourth down at their own 20-yard line and needing to go 3 yards, coach Mike Lalor elected to go for it instead of punting into a howling wind from the south.
“That deep, yeah, I was a little surprised, but we executed it good,” Elliott said of keeping the offense on the field for fourth down.
The Cardinals put the ball in Elliott's hands — the call a “56, a power run to the right,” he said — and once he burst through the line of scrimmage there was no one to stop him. The 80-yard dash, and the two-point conversion that followed, tied the game at 8-8 with 7 minutes, 29 seconds left in the half and changed the whole feel of the game.
“We were down, so we needed a little spark from the offense,” Elliott said.
“That was a big run for them,” Panthers senior Nick Williams said. “That was hard for our defense, and it's hard to come back from that, once they score on a big run like that. It's hard to get momentum going again.”
Elliott said: “It was a huge play, and my offensive line did really good opening up the hole. I just saw the hole and ran through it and started running for my life. Zac Hare and Logan Alberts, the fullback and running back, did a great job opening it up.”
Milem said: “We knew with that kind of physical attack we had to put a lot of guys in the box. It made us nervous that if they missed a tackle they would pop one. For the most part we got it done, but for that one time in didn't, and that's all it took.”
The emotional lift might have been as important as the points.
“It pumps up the sidelines,” Elliott said. “Our fans are the best around, and everyone got pumped up, then we get the momentum going forward and we just kept rolling.”
If the first score didn't rip at the Panthers' hearts, the second one had to. It came with just 6.7 seconds left in the half after Stillman Valley took over at its 25 with 1:05 left after a punt.
On the first play, Elliott appeared to be stopped for a short game but spun free and was in another footrace. Noah Eads caught him after a 43-yard run, but a personal foul penalty tacked on 15 more yards.
“Those feel awesome,” Elliott said of the big runs, “and my offensive line does a great job, and I give them all the credit, and I just try to run hard every time.”
Three plays later, the Cardinals faced a fourth-and-5 and brought out Keaton Weber to line up for a field goal. But he never had to test his leg into the wind, as the Panthers jumped too soon, giving Stillman Valley a first down at the 7. A 6-yard run by Elliott set up a 1-yard touchdown burst for 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior Zac Hare and a 16-8 lead at the half.
The Panthers had a much tougher time moving the ball in the second half. They gained just 61 of their 224 total yards after halftime.
“It was just getting off the ball,” Williams said of the Panthers' first-half success. “They started catching on and realizing what we were doing.”
They did enough to make it interesting, though.
Erie/Prophetstown pulled within 16-14 with 1.1 seconds left in the third quarter when sophomore Jordan Chandler, who took over at quarterback when Howard went down with a knee injury in last week's first-round win against Varna River Valley, sneaked the ball in from a yard out. But the Cardinals stopped Williams on the two-point run attempt, preserving the two-point lead.
When it got the ball back, Stillman Valley went on a five-minute march that covered 74 yards on 12 plays. Hare finished it with another 1-yard run, but the drive also featured Elliott's third-longest run of the day, a 35-yard scamper that moved the Cardinals to the Panthers' 25-yard line.
Erie/Prophetstown's final drive started with some promise — Williams ran for 9 yards on the first play and got another yard for the first down on the next. But the next two plays both lost yardage, then the Panthers lost Chandler to a leg injury on third down. Facing fourth-and-11 at the own 29, the Cardinals called on sophomore Phillip Coers take over under center, but his pass — the Panthers' lone throw of the day – went incomplete.
Stillman Valley then ran out the clock, picking up a pair of first downs on third-down runs by Elliott.
Despite the loss, Erie/Prophetstown got another big day on the ground by Williams. He finished with 137 yards rushing on 23 carries, putting him over 2,000 for the year and setting a school record.
Williams picked up 38 of those yards on the opening possession, an 80-yard, eight-play scoring drive for the Panthers. Bauer (nine carries, 77 yards) capped it with a 47-yard run when he broke free on a fourth-and-7 counter play.
“We were really looking up for that opening drive,” Williams said. “We were so happy with how everything was running and going so smooth.”
But, Stillman Valley stepped up its defense, and the Panthers had trouble adjusting, especially without Howard at the controls.
“It was tough on all our team because he's like the backbone of our offense,” Williams said. “We still ran everything, it was just harder to run because he (Chandler) is a sophomore running varsity-level ball, and it's tough on him.”
Despite the loss, Williams remained positive about what the Panthers accomplished, making their second consecutive playoff appearance.
Being a senior, I couldn't be happier with how our team performed throughout all of our games,” Williams said. “Eight and three is not a bad record, and I'm proud of all the guys.”
STILLMAN VALLEY 24, ERIE/PROPHETSTOWN 14
Stillman Valley 0 16 0 8 – 24
Erie/Prophetstown 8 0 6 0 – 14
EP – Chris Bauer 47 run (Nick Williams run), 7:24
SV – Tristan Elliott 80 run (Logan Alberts run), 7:29
SV – Zac Hare 1 run (Elliott run), :06.7
EP – Jordan Chandler 1 run (run failed), :01.1
SV – Hare 1 run (Elliott run), 7:07
RUSHING – Stillman Valley (50-328), Tristan Elliott 20-229, Connor McNames 6-48, Logan Alberts 7-28, Zac Hare 11-27, Jacob Hoey 2-9, Micah Castronovo 2-2, Eddie Torrance 1-0, Team 2-minus-15; Erie/Prophetstown (47-224), Nick Williams 23-137, Chris Bauer 9-77, Sean Maloney 1-9, Dylan Binion 3-6, Jordan Chandler 10-minus-4, Team 1-minus-1.
PASSING – Stillman Valley (0-4-0-0), McNames 0-4-0-0; Erie/Prophetstown, Phillip Coers 0-1-0-0.