LANARK — Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley coach Mike Allen improvised and “drew up a play on the run” with Nathan Garard looking for Ryland Holt late in the fourth quarter of Saturday's tense Class 2A semifinal playoff game.
Then a bad snap went past Garard.
“Let's just say that wasn't designed,” said the Falcons' senior quarterback.
Garard quickly retrieved the ball, turned around and with a defender bearing down on him fired toward the end zone. The 6-foot-4 Holt snagged a 10-yard touchdown pass just out of the reach of Eastland-Pearl City's Jared Kempel with 4:08 left to break a 7-all tie in a defensive slugfest.
When Bryce Barnes stripped the ball and sacked Eastland quarterback Braden Smargiassi on fourth down, defending champion and No. 2-ranked GCMS secured a 14-7 victory over No. 6 Eastland.
That gave the Falcons (13-0) a spot in Friday's 1 p.m. championship game against No. 1 Maroa-Forsyth (13-0) at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. It will be a rematch of last season's title contest won by GCMS, 38-32.
“We have to shore some things up and be ready for Maroa-Forsyth,” said Allen after the Falcons' 27th straight win. “Both teams were wishing to play each other again, so here we go.”
GCMS survived despite three turnovers and having two touchdowns called back because of penalties. Whereas last year's championship game was played in DeKalb and the Falcons had to stay overnight, they'll get to sleep in their own beds and make the 30-minute drive to Champaign.
“Growing up as kids we dreamed about playing on the Illini's field,” said Holt. “It's a dream come true for all of us.”
Saturday's first half was more like a nightmare for the Falcons.
Garard's 52-yard TD pass to Barnes was called back by a motion penalty in the first quarter. GCMS managed only 17 yards of total offense in the first half, but its stellar defense stifled a couple Eastland threats.
“We came to the locker room and were mad at each other,” said Barnes. “Coach Allen walked in and calmed us down a little bit and said, 'What are you doing? Either go home or win a game.'”
GCMS appeared to take the lead on the second half's opening drive. Garard bulled into the end zone on a 1-yard sneak, but GCMS was called for a delay of game penalty for snapping the ball before the referees whistled it in play.
Ben Freehill came in for a 22-yard field goal, but pushed it wide right to keep the game scoreless.
The Falcons didn't blink. After forcing a three-and-out, GCMS drove 59 yards in 10 plays, capped by Jared Trantina's 4-yard run. Freehill's conversion kick gave the Falcons a 7-0 lead with 3:56 left in the third quarter.
Both teams traded interceptions before Eastland (12-1) struck back. Two key passes on third downs kept the drive alive, and the Wilcatz used some trickery when halfback Jayden Kempel launched a 7-yard TD pass to his twin brother, Jared, for a 7-all tie early in the fourth quarter.
Eastland had a punt blocked in the first quarter by GCMS' Hayden Workman. This time, Eastland's Aiden Gassman punted into the back of his own player, giving the Falcons great field position at the Wildcatz' 26 with 6:21 left.
Facing third-and-eight at the 10, the Falcons decided to target Holt, who had not caught a pass. That was before the snap went past Garard.
“I was going to go to Ryland regardless how that play was drawn up,” said Garard. “I saw him through an alley way. It was like throwing darts.”
Eastland had fourth-and-8 at its own 47 and called its final timeout. Allen had a message for Barnes, his All-State defensive end.
“Coach Allen gave me the rights to go after the quarterback. He said make a play,” said Barnes. “That's just what happened.”
Eastland lineman Wyatt Hammer picked up Smargiassi's fumble and tried to reach the first-down marker, but was stopped short before intentionally fumbling it forward. He was called for a penalty with 2:10 left. GCMS got the ball back and ran out the clock.
GCMS finished with 130 yards of total offense. Trantina gained 58 yards on 22 carries, while Garard completed 4 of 9 attempts for 58 yards.
Eastland was held to 212 yards, including 115 on the ground.
“Our kids knew the season was on the line at halftime,” said Allen. “There were 24 more minutes to come out and execute or pack up their stuff. They weren't ready for it to be over.”