Big-play capability separated South Elgin from visiting Metea Valley in a 28-21 Upstate Eight Valley victory Saturday.
South Elgin scored 3 of its 4 touchdowns from well beyond the red zone, including what proved to be the game-winning pass early in the fourth quarter of its homecoming game.
Meanwhile, the Mustangs had to grind out most of their 218 total yards against an opportunistic South Elgin defense that picked off 3 passes and forced Metea Valley to turn the ball over on downs three times.
"We're right there every week," said Metea Valley coach Ben Kleinhans, whose team slipped to 1-3 overall and 0-3 in league play, "We just have to make more of those game-winning, game-defining plays when it's there -- here it is, this is the ballgame. We need to make more of those plays and we didn't do enough."
The Storm offense registered its final big play to break a fourth-quarter tie.
Metea Valley had just knotted the score 21-21 on a 1-yard plunge by Cameron Wilcox with 11:48 left in the fourth quarter. Wilcox, who rushed for 123 yards on 29 carries, capped a 12-play, 91-yard drive and added a 2-point conversion run to even the score.
South Elgin (3-2, 2-1) responded 3 plays later on an improvised, 43-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Robert Cuda to junior receiver Tyler Christensen. Cuda rolled to his left, stepped up to avoid an unblocked blitzer and heaved the ball deep. Christensen adjusted his route from a 5-yard out to a wheel once he saw his quarterback under pressure.
"He saw me coming out of the pocket so he went deep and I just threw it to him," said Cuda, who completed 15 of 33 attempts for 229 yards.
"I saw the corner come up, and I looked back and saw my quarterback scrambling," said Christensen, who finished with 3 receptions for 68 yards. "I just turned up field and no one was there.
"You don't think about it. You're thinking little plays, little plays, little plays. Then there's a big play. You just try to conquer it and keep going."
Metea Valley could not muster a tying touchdown in its final 4 possessions. South Elgin's defense forced a three-and-out punt with 9:32 left in the game. On Metea's next possession, the Mustangs went for it on 4th-and-1 at midfield only to be stuffed by Storm linebacker Chris Bingham for a 4-yard loss with 7:46 remaining.
"I had a B-gap blitz," Bingham said. "I got right around the guard and it happened to be a dive right at me so I tackled him. Perfect place, perfect time."
South Elgin ate nearly four minutes of clock in its ensuing 12-play drive, which ended on downs at the Metea Valley 27, but the Metea offense was stopped 6 plays later when Bingham intercepted a Blaise Bell pass at the South Elgin 44-yard line.
An inside linebacker, Bingham had dropped into coverage in the flat in place of a blitzing South Elgin outside linebacker.
"(Bell) just didn't see me I guess," Bingham said. "He threw it right at me, over his receiver, and it landed right in my hand. I didn't do much. Just perfect place, perfect time again. That was my game today."
The Metea Valley defense held three-and-out, which forced a much-needed South Elgin punt. However, Kleinhaus was forced to burn his timeouts in the process. The Mustangs got the ball back at their own 30-yard line with 48.9 seconds on the clock and no way to stop the clock.
They completed 2 passes for 15 yards, but each receiver was tackled inbounds. With the clock ticking below 10 seconds, Bell's final pass was intercepted at midfield by linebacker Nate Marotta to end it.
"We just got in the situation where we had to take some chances at the end," Klenihans said. "We missed a couple of throws and it hurt us."
The Storm took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter on a 61-yard scoring run by Christensen and Matt Bree's extra point. Metea responded with 13 straight points on Alex Hagemaster's zigzagging 33-yard punt return and a 7-yard Wilcox run.
South Elgin regained a 14-13 lead when Cuda connected with senior receiver Joe Crivolio on a 10-yard slant pattern with 23 seconds left in the first half, capping a 9-play, 58-yard drive.
The Storm moved to a 21-13 lead on their opening possession of the third quarter. Running back Jeff Broger (12 carries, 42 yards) burst through a tackle and sped up the right sideline for a 35-yard scoring jaunt, a play preceded by a Cuda-to-Crivolio 16-yard gain. Crivolio led the Storm with 7 receptions for 116 yards.
The loss was the third straight for the Mustangs, who next host state-ranked Neuqua Valley (5-0, 2-0). The win was the second straight for South Elgin, which travels to Aurora next Friday to face state-ranked Waubonsie Valley (5-0, 2-0)
"We know Waubonsie and we know how they play," Crivolio said. "It's going to be a hostile environment. We're going to be prepared and we're going to see what happens down there."