It was all there for the taking for No. 4 seed Crystal Lake Central.
And not just once, or twice for the Tigers. But 3 times in the fourth quarter.
With its best opportunity on Cary-Grove's third fumble of the quarter -- a failed exchange that CLC recovered on the Trojan 29 with 1:20 remaining down 7-0 -- seemingly spelling doom for the top-seeded, undefeated Trojans, whose offense was collectively frustrated.
But credit Cary-Grove's defense, which stymied Central's spread attack and double-tight set all afternoon, limiting the Tigers' offense to 182 total yards, for making one more stop, this one with the game on the line.
And that final stop came on the Tigers' final pass, when Kyle Lavand lofted a miracle pass toward the end zone on fourth-and-2 with 30 seconds remaining. Defensive back Matt Sutherland batted the pass to the ground, a play indicative of how the Trojans' defense stood to preserve a 7-0 shutout win in a Class 6A quarterfinal game that served all the justice it could at Al Bohrer Field in Cary Saturday afternoon.
The Trojans (12-0) will play at No. 10 Lake Forest next Saturday in the semifinals, C-G's first appearance in the Final Four since its state championship run in 2009.
"They were literally like a lifeline, I messed up a few times and I couldn't be more proud of them," fullback Kyle Norberg said of the defense he was also apart of. "It's a team win and everything. I was down. They got me back up."
Usually Norberg, quarterback Quinn Baker and Ryan Mahoney set the tone for the Trojans. While Norberg carried 30 times for 133 yards, nobody expected the offense to struggle.
"The past couple weeks it's been the opposite. We've been struggling and Norberg's been just running all over the place," Sutherland said. "It's pretty special to get our first shutout today just to step up for our offense for once."
Mahoney, who had 71 yards in 10 carries, scored the game's only touchdown on an 8-yard run with 21 seconds left in the first half and the Tigers came up empty on 3 fourth quarter drives, twice after Cary-Grove fumbled.
The first was poked away at the Central 47 and recovered by Connor Hines with 10:39 remaining. C-G averted the crisis by forcing a punt 3 plays later with 9:13 left. But the Trojans fumbled again with 4:57 left as Justin Ellman recovered, capping a promising 7-play, 36-yard drive that sucked up 5 minutes of clock. Central failed to capitalize again, as DB Marcus Thimios picked off Lavand's pass at the C-G 6 with 3 minutes remaining.
"We thought they were going to come out and pound the ball against us," Thimios said. "They did a little bit but they came out in the air and we were ready for it and stepped up when the time was right and made some plays."
Cary-Grove's objective was to secure the ball and run the clock. Kaede Connington appeared to seal it on his 7-yard run with nearly 2 minutes left but the failed exchange with 80 seconds remaining allowed Central (9-3) one last chance to tie or take the game from there.
"I was worried every time we turned the ball over, in particular that third time; it was nerve-racking," Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said. "I felt pretty good about our defense's chances of stopping them. But it was a matter of getting it done."
Andrew Alexander's 8-yard catch on first down gave CLC hope with 1:13. But Lavand (14 for 24, 135 yards) threw incomplete and running back Connor Hines was stuffed a play later. On fourth-and-2 at the 21, Sutherland expected something else, but was there to knock down the pass.
"We were actually expecting run, but it was the Godzilla package as they said and they made a substitution and they ran a pass and I had my guy and saw the ball in the air and batted it down," Sutherland said. "It's quarterfinals, you got to do anything to win, to pull it out."
C-G amassed 262 total yards and held Central to 47 yards rushing. Central missed a 28-yard field goal that went wide in the first quarter and failed on a fake field goal pass to open the second half. Baker rushed for 51 yards on 17 carries for the Trojans.