'We had to have a rebuttal': This time, Pekin rallies for a stunning Mid-Illini football victory
METAMORA — There were plenty of times the Pekin football team could have folded Friday night.
But driven by the memory of the previous week's heartbreaking loss to Washington, the Dragons overcame a 14-point second-half deficit and stunned Metamora 35-28 in a Mid-Illini Conference slugfest on a muddy Malone Field.
Washington scored a touchdown and added a two-point conversion with 8.2 seconds left to beat Pekin 22-21 last week after the Dragons led the Mid-Illini game 14-0 with less than four minutes left in the third quarter.
"That loss left a bitter taste in everyone's mouths," said Pekin coach Doug Nutter. "We all felt we left one on the field. I couldn't be prouder of how this team bounced back from that loss."
Pekin powered by run game
One of Friday's heroes for Pekin (5-2, 3-2) was junior running back Tanner Sprecher. He ran 18 times for 198 yards and three touchdowns, often shedding would-be tacklers by running over and around them.
Sprecher gave everything he had. He got ill on the Pekin sideline after his final run of the night, but he was smiling and upbeat a few minutes later.
"I got into a mental frame all week that nobody was going to take me down," Sprecher said. "This was our biggest game of the season, and our team had to have a rebuttal after what happened last week. I was speechless after that game.
"I have to give credit to our offensive line. Those guys make me look good. I wouldn't be anything without them."
While Sprecher and running mate Kanye Tyler (19 carries, 73 yards) combined for 271 yards and four TDs on the ground, Pekin scored its winning touchdown on a pass.
It was a 5-yard toss from Scotty Jordan to Brody Keene with 4 minutes, 32 seconds left in the game.
With Metamora (5-2, 3-2) playing for the run, Jordan found Keene all alone in the back of the end zone. The drive was set up when Tyler forced and recovered a Metamora fumble on the Redbirds' 42 with 11:00 to go.
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The Redbirds drove to the Pekin 26 in search of a game-tying or game-winning touchdown, but two incomplete passes ended the march with 1:12 to go. Quarterback Connor Willerton was flushed out of the pocket on Metamora's final play and he couldn't find anyone open in the end zone.
Metamora controlled start of second half
The Dragons were draggin' late in the first half and early in the second half.
Pekin drove to the Metamora 5 in the final moments of the second quarter, but failed to score when Metamora defensive back Luke Ufheil knocked away a fourth-down pass in the end zone.
Down 22-14 at halftime, the Dragons found themselves behind 28-14 after a disastrous start to the second half.
Jordan's pass on Pekin's first play from scrimmage in the third quarter was tipped by Metamora's 6-foot-5, 300-pound Ben Wallace and intercepted by T.J. Reising.
Metamora immediately scored on a 45-yard pass from Willerton to a wide-open Garrett Taylor, who earlier ran for two touchdowns and finished the night with 25 carries for 175 yards filling in for the injured Ethan Petri (knee), the Redbirds' No. 1 rusher.
The Willerton-to-Taylor touchdown pass came with 11:37 remaining in the third quarter.
Metamora never scored again.
Three Redbirds possessions ended with a 17-yard sack by Pekin's Tyler Haynes, the fumble recovery by Tyler, and the back-to-back incomplete passes. That went against the grain in a game that saw the two teams roll up 643 yards in total offense and punt just once.
"We made some adjustments on defense in the second half, and our offense grinded it out and finished drives late in the game," said Nutter, who somehow eluded getting a bucket of ice water dumped on him by players during a post-game celebration.
'Like two heavyweight boxers'
It was a tough loss to swallow for Metamora coach Jared Grebner, whose team has dropped two straight after a 5-0 start.
"It looked like two heavyweight boxers going at it out there," he said.
In a show of accountability, Grebner voluntarily brought up and took responsibility for a penalty on Pekin's game-winning drive.
"I was called for being out of the coach's box and that gave Pekin a fourth-and-1 instead of a fourth-and-6," he said. "Fourth-and-1 is a lot easier to convert than fourth-and-6. Every game is a learning experience for players and coaches. That's my learning experience."
The Dragons converted the first down to a 2-yard run by Tyler, and scored eight plays later.
Metamora jumped ahead early
Metamora took the opening kickoff and scored three plays later on a 12-yard run by Taylor.
The Redbirds went up 14-7 with 5.7 seconds left in the first quarter on a 33-yard touchdown pass from Willerton to Reising and 22-14 at halftime on a 20-yard run by Taylor.
Sprecher scored on a 18-yard run in the first quarter, a 9-yard run in the second quarter in which he carried several Metamora defensive players with him into the end zone with the help of offensive lineman Chance McCloud, and a 42-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Tyler had an 18-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Jordan was 10-for-17 passing for 81 yards. Pekin's Levi Burke had five catches for 28 yards and Bo Benassi had three catches for 48 yards.
Willerton was 6-for-10 through the air for 141 yards.
Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.