EL PASO — In a back-and-forth, toe-to-toe skirmish that featured long, time-consuming scoring drives, it was a blocked punt and a resulting short field that proved decisive as the El Paso-Gridley High School football team upended Knoxville, 28-22, in a Class 2A playoff game Saturday.
The pivotal sequence began when EPG standout Ryne Faulk blocked a Knoxville punt with just under seven minutes remaining and the Titans trailing 22-20.
The block gave EPG possession at the Knoxville 21-yard line.
From there it took just four plays before Faulk bulled into the end zone from 5 yards out to give the Titans the winning TD and send them into the quarterfinal round against Heart of Illinois Conference rival GCMS next Saturday at Gibson City.
"I thought we were in trouble when we had to punt (on the possession prior to the block), but our defense came up huge," said EPG coach Stephen Rigsby. "We got a stop, then we go block a punt to give ourselves a chance, to give us a short field."
Rigsby said the Titans put "a few new wrinkles in" in recent weeks to more effectively rush the punter.
Faulk made one of Saturday's most key moments sound rather easy.
"We have our two tackles put their guard and center apart and I just ran up the hole and had a wide open lane, right to the ball," Faulk said.
The ensuing, game-winning touchdown was Faulk's third of the contest.
Earlier, he capped an 80-yard, seven-play drive with a 2-yard TD run to give EPG a 6-0 first-quarter advantage.
After Knoxville answered on the following possession, Faulk converted a screen pass from quarterback Jarrin Landrus into an 11-yard touchdown to complete a 73-yard drive in the second quarter and put the Titans up 12-8 just 1:09 before halftime.
As was the case throughout the day, the lead was short-lived. Knoxville answered on a 27-yard scoring pass 32 seconds later to grab a 14-12 at the half.
Rigsby was pleased with the Titans' ability to continue to bounce back after grabbing a lead and then immediately losing it to a talented, hard-hitting opponent.
"(Knoxville) is a tough, good, physical football team," Rigsby said. "They're one of the most tough, physical teams we've played all year. Our kids just never say die."
EPG (7-4) opened the second half with a 68-yard, 14-play drive that took 8:02 off the clock. A 1-yard touchdown run by Landrus put EPG up 20-14.
Pivotal to the march were a pair of short yardage, third-down quarterback keepers that found Landrus simply following a huge push by the EPG offensive line.
"We went into halftime and Coach told us what we needed to do, the line got it done, we moved the ball up the field and put it in the end zone," said Faulk, who followed his blockers for a game-high 174 yards rushing on 29 carries.
True to form, Knoxville (8-3) answered with a 75-yard scoring drive to retake the lead with 10:33 remaining, only to lose it with the blocked punt and ensuing score by the Titans.
"EPG executed better when they had to and we had some execution issues when we didn't need them, so hats off to them," said Knoxville coach Ryan Hebard. "They got the job done, we didn't."
Knoxville's opening drive of the game was thwarted deep in EPG territory when the Titans' Zach Herr intercepted a pass in the end zone. The Blue Bullets' final drive of the contest also ended with a pick, as EPG's Tony Sleevar sealed the victory in the closing seconds.
EPG ended with 209 yards rushing. Landrus added 87 yards on 10-of-13 passing with Faulk grabbing seven passes for 53 yards. Lukas Kiefer accounted for the rest with three catches for 34 yards.
The Titans were 2-4 at the beginning of October with its playoff chances looking bleak. A five-game winning streak has put the Titans in the quarterfinals.
"We just kept after it and have gotten better all year long," Rigsby said. "You just can't ask for any more than that. I'm not sure how it happened, but we're going to ride with it and keep rolling at this point."