DEKALB — An 11-yard touchdown run by Brooks Schmitt in the fourth quarter gave the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School football team its first lead of the second half Friday afternoon.
After that lead quickly vanished, the Falcons had to find one more answer to complete a perfect season.
That answer came in the form of a 23-yard TD pass from Nathan Garard to Bryce Barnes with 1:08 on the clock that lifted GCMS to a 38-32 victory over Maroa-Forsyth in the Class 2A state championship game at Huskie Stadium.
“It was just great blocking by our line,” Barnes said of the third-and-long play that produced the winning score. Garard bought time in the backfield before lofting a toss that Barnes jumped to corral in tight coverage.
“He just threw it up and I made a play on the ball. I left my feet, it was kind of crazy.”
“You can’t really think too much. You have to have tunnel vision in what you’re doing, read the defense and find the open guy,” Garard said of what was just his third completion of the day.
A Falcons defense that had allowed just 81 points all season thwarted Maroa’s desperation final drive, capping a 14-0 season and the first state football title in program history.
“Bryce made one heckuva catch and Nathan made a great throw,” said veteran GCMS coach Mike Allen.
“That was a great high school football game between two very good teams and two very good programs. Our kids fought, just like they’ve done all year. We got down early and never gave up, never argued or broke down. We played as a team for 48 minutes and that showed at the end.”
Workhorse running back Mitch McNutt powered his way to 139 yards and three TDs on 32 carries for GCMS, while Jared Trantina added 132 yards on 14 runs.
“You knew it would kind of be like a track race … they score, we score kind of thing,” said McNutt. “I just tried to bounce some runs, get the most yards I could get.
“(The state championship) means everything. It’s all our team has talked about since a loss last year to Kewanee in the second round. I’m still in shock.”
GCMS overcame 128 rushing yards by Maroa senior Deondre Gregory and three TDs by Aaron Inda, whose 52-yard reverse for a TD gave the Trojans (12-2) a 32-30 lead with 6:26 remaining.
“That’s what a state championship game should look like,” said Maroa coach Josh Jostes after his team’s second straight runner-up finish. “It came down to the last possession, the last minute of the ballgame.”
The shootout wasn’t quite what GCMS expected, but the Falcons defense came through at the end.
“Nobody likes it when they score on us. This was new, them putting up this many points and we didn’t like it,” said linebacker Luke Freehill. “We knew in the end we had to make sure it didn’t happen anymore.”
On the game’s opening series, the Trojans struck quickly as Inda caught a screen pass from Ian Benner and broke four tackles on a 55-yard dash to the end zone.
The Falcons responded with a six-play drive covering 66 yards in 3:34 as McNutt powered over tacklers on a 20-yard rumble before strolling in from the 3 on a pitch from Garard for a 7-6 lead.
After Maroa tacked on a 16-yard pass from Benner to Max Davenport in the final minute of the first quarter, a 29-yard run by Trantina got the next GCMS drive started. McNutt picked up two key third-down conversions, then trotted in from the 3. Garard connected with Ryland Holt on a 2-point conversion for a 15-12 advantage.
Then the defenses woke up for one series each. After McNutt dropped Gregory in the backfield near midfield, Maroa’s fake punt pass fell incomplete. GCMS marched inside the Falcons 10, but got backed up by a holding penalty and Garard’s fourth-down heave to the end zone also hit the turf.
Maroa then got back in rhythm for the final series of the half, as a screen to Charlie Hubbard got inside the GCMS 1 and Inda walked in on an end-around for a 19-15 halftime lead.
Leading 19-15 at halftime, Maroa tacked on a 36-yard TD run by Gregory before McNutt’s third TD cut the margin to 30-26 entering the final quarter. A 49-yard jaunt by Trantina then energized the Falcons.
“I saw the cutback was there and I just kept going. I knew we needed to get down there,” said Trantina. “It was just kind of a total team effort. The O-line did great and I just went through the holes.”
Two plays later, Schmitt powered through a would-be tackler at the goal line on an 11-yard sweep.
“Brooks can run. He runs very well, plus we have Mitchell blocking over there,” said Allen. “Brooks is a good reader. He’s an outstanding athlete and a patient runner, and we felt very confident in him.”
After Inda put Maroa back ahead, Allen knew the Falcons still had time and told his players “not to panic.”
With McNutt getting a bulk of the workload, GCMS marched 75 yards in 12 plays and chewed up 5:16 on a final drive that included a 35-yard third-down pass to Barnes.
“We were just going to ground and pound as we needed to,” said Allen, whose team followed Tri-Valley and Deer Creek-Mackinaw as the third straight 2A champ from the Heart of Illinois Conference.
“We had to throw it on that down to get a first down and were very fortunate to come down with the ball in the end zone.”