COLUMBIANA - Having not played a competitive game into the fourth quarter since the first week, Crestview was in unfamiliar territory when it saw what once was a 17-point lead morph into a tied game with 9:53 left in its Div. V playoff game against St. Thomas Aquinas on Saturday.
The rest of the fourth quarter played out with huge offensive plays and little defense on both sides. It was a test of wills the Rebels had not much time to study for throughout the regular season.
The Knights, poised to spoil the festive atmosphere, gauged their chance at stealing a victory with 1:42 left when a Josiah Moore 60-yard touchdown made the score 51-50.
St. Thomas set up for a two-point conversion, but Matt Hardenbrook, who gave the Rebels a 51-44 lead with a 40-yard touchdown run with 3:10 to go, intercepted sophomore Anthony Moeglin's pass to save the Rebels' perfect season.
"It really was a wake-up call," Crestview senior Matt Hardenbrook said. "But in the end we got it done."
Hardenbrook said he was not surprised the Knights (9-2) were going for two and was ready for the situation.
"They were just being greedy," Hardenbrook said. "They wanted the win. I read the ball. I saw the quarterback and I couldn't believe I picked it."
St. Thomas coach Tim Budd said he had no reservations going for two.
"Let's also realize there was no guarantee we would have stopped them after that," Budd said. "They had the ball last and we hadn't stopped them. Heck, yeah I'm going for two. Then and any other time."
The Knights made a stab at an onside kick following the two-point failure, but the ball was kicked out of bounds and the Rebels took over to preserve the win.
"I would have never thought the game was going to go down to the last play during the week of practice," Crestview coach Paul Cusick said. "As the second half unfolded, I knew that what it was going to be. Both offenses were making big plays."
Both offenses combined for 940 yards of total offense - Crestview 583 and St. Thomas 357 - in a rematch of a second-round game from last year's playoffs. Crestview ran away with that one. This time St. Thomas kept up.
Well, sort of.
"They're better (than us)," Budd said. "They score everytime they have the ball. Heck, we had a defensive breakout against them. We held them five points below their average. We busted our butts, but they're faster than us. All of them. They block well and they execute well. It's everything."
Crestview (11-0) opened the game looking much like it had all season. It was 17-0 with 10:08 left in the second quarter and St. Thomas was not generating much on offense. That all changed when Moore returned a kick-off 90 yards for a touchdown.
Crestview held a 24-14 lead at the half, but it could have been more. A time management error at the end of the half saw the Rebels run out of time at the St. Thomas 1.
Crestview scored on the first drive of the second half to extend the lead to 16, but the double dose of Moore and Bryan Wilkins snuck up on the Rebels and the game was tied at 37 with 9:53 left in the fourth quarter.
Moore finished with 143 yards rushing and three touchdowns, while Wilkins had 144 yards and three touchdowns.
"I wasn't worried about it," Cusick said. "Physically we conditioned for it. I have a lot of faith in them. We've been in these kinds of games before. I expected them to respond and they did."
The Rebels had a three-pronged running attack working all night. Quarterback Collin Gilbert posted 26 carries for 178 yards and three touchdowns. Hardenbrook had 18 carries for 134 yards and the final Rebel touchdown, while Nick Blower, who had 322 yards against Aquinas last year, had a relatively quiet 23 carries for 185 yards and three touchdowns.
Outside of those three, the Rebels needed big plays elsewhere. When it was tied at 37, Dimitri Gregory was called upon to do something big on special teams. He responded with a 74-yard kick-off return which set the team up for a go-ahead touchdown with 8:49 left in the fourth quarter.
"Coach said he needed a returner," Gregory said. "I was told I needed to step up and lead my team, so I told coach I wanted to go on return. I saw the hole and took it advantage of it. I know I'm slow and everything, but I thought I was going to score."
Gregory looked as if he welcomed the challenge so late in the game.
"When there's no pressure, there's no diamonds," Gregory said.
St. Thomas tied the game back up with 7:05 left, but Hardenbrook stepped up onto the scene with his 40-yard touchdown with 3:10 left to seemingly save the day.
"On one play I got caught and I remembered thinking I should have run as hard as I could," Hardenbrook said. "I'm so tired right now. Josh McDade and Kris Simpson had beautiful blocks for me on that play. I just ran as hard as I could."
The one-point victory earns the Rebels a rematch with defending Div. V state champion Kirtland on Saturday at a site to be determined. Last year the Hornets eliminated the Rebels 35-7 in a regional final at Mollenkopf Stadium in Warren.
"They're a measuring stick for all of us," Cusick said of Kirtland.