When you are talking about NUIC football, the first thing you see are the number of titles the conference has won in its history, and the amount of success the conference has had over the past decade. When you start counting semifinal appearances, there have been many teams represented there as well. However, when you talk about great semifinal match-ups between two teams who have combined to win 4 state titles in the past 7 seasons, this game ranks as one of the best ever.
With the recent tragedies that Forreston has faced in the past week, both teams donned blue decals on the helmets in remembrance of those lost, and Le-Win painted their traditional black Panther logo at midfield in blue in a classy show of support.
From the onset of the game you could feel the intensity and the hype as these two heavyweights squared off. Le-Win received the ball to start the game, and in traditional Panther ways they would get things started on the ground. Beginning at their own 31 yard line the Panthers would call on their leading rusher Rahveon Valentine early and often to begin the drive. Mixed in with a few runs by Sean Ormiston, the Panthers marched 69 yards in 6:30 and found themselves with the lead on their opening possession after Ormiston punched it in for 6 from a yard out. The PAT kick by Parker Magee would get caught up in the wind and sail wide left, keeping the score at 6-0 with 5:22 remaining in the 1st quarter.
The Cardinals would open their 1st drive at their own 33 yard line, but after gaining just 6 yards and being forced into a 3 and out they were forced to punt. The punt would pin Le-Win at their own 19 yard line to begin their 2nd drive. Going back to the run game Le-Win would begin driving the ball again. Facing back 3rd and 5 situations, the Panthers would capitalize for 1st downs as the 1st quarter came to an end. Starting off the 2nd quarter, Panther QB Ty Chrisman dropped back to pass, but was quickly flushed out of the pocket and turned that into a 27 yard run for a critical 1st down, and put the Panthers back into Forreston territory. A couple of runs by Valentine set up a big play through the air, as Chrisman dropped back to pass and found Gaige Schwartz streaking up the middle of the field and behind the Cardinal defense for a 27 yard TD pass to give Le-Win a 12-0 lead with 8:30 left to play in the 1st half. The 81 yard drive would chew up 7:10 off the clock.
Forreston would begin to get things rolling on their 2nd possession, as they would get behind some runs from AJ Christensen, and then Hunter Daws would hook up with Christensen on a couple pass plays, but the Panther defense would stand strong with their backs against the wall, as they shut down the Forreston offense on 4th and goal from the 5 yard line to force a turnover on downs. The drive would eat up 5:30 off the clock, as the 1st half was beginning to come to an end.
The Cardinal defense would return the favor, stopping the Panther offense and forcing a punt after a 3 and out at the Le-Win 9 yard line. A shank punt would give the Cardinals life at the Le-Win 25 yard line with 33 seconds remaining in the half. This time the Cardinals would make it pay, after taking a penalty and a sack. With a couple ticks left on the clock, Daws would find Christensen for a 33 yard TD pass with .6 seconds left on the clock. A Gavin Fuchs 2 point conversions would pull the Cards within 4, trailing 12-8 as they would head into the half.
Le-Win dominated the 1st half on the line of scrimmage, but the halftime stats showed a rather close game as Le-Win went into halftime with 129 yards of offense to Forreston's 94 yards.
Forreston would open the 2nd half receiving the ball, and having some momentum after halftime, they began driving the ball, breaking into Panther territory, but that Panther defense once again came up with a big stop on 4th down at their own 33 yard line to force a turnover on downs. The Panthers would move the ball again behind Valentine, but they would stall out at the Cardinals 43 yard line. Deciding to play field position the Panthers punted the ball, and a perfectly placed kick by Parker Magee went out of bounds at the Forreston 1 yard line.
Needing to dig out of the hole, Forreston did just that with some passes to Gavin Fuchs combined with a few Fuchs and Christensen runs, but once they hit midfield that Panther defense came up big again with 2:57 remaining in the 3rd quarter to force a punt.
A few minutes later the Cards were back to work, with 11:52 left in the game, and Forreston tried going back to the air with Daws, but an untimely interception by Sean Ormiston set up the Panthers with a 1st and 10 at the Cardinal 28 yard line. With a quick 3 and out mired by a penalty, the Panthers decided to punt again to try and pin the Cardinals deep, and Magee came up with a big punt that was downed at the Cardinal 6 yard line with 8:12 to play.
The Cards would get a few more pass plays to both Christensen and Fuchs as they began marching down the field, but once they reached the Le-Win 39 yard line another failed 4th down with 4:03 remaining gave Le-Win the ball, but Forreston still had all 3 timeouts in their back pocket.
Facing what looked like could be the final drive of the game, it was the Cardinal defense making the noise, as they pushed Le-Win back 5 yards on the drive to force another punt with 2:10 remaining, which would give Forreston their one last breath to drive for the win. A bad punt gave Forreston prime field position at their own 47 yard line. A quick Daws to Fuchs connection went for 28 yards, and the Cards were in business. That was followed by a Christensen 14 yard run, but with time running off the clock and the Cardinals running out of options they would go to the air. Forreston's Daws dropped back to pass after faking a lead up the gut, as Christensen slid through the defense and found himself streaking down the left sideline all alone, but once the ball was released Christensen had to slow up his momentum and come back for the ball, which also allowed Le-Win to adjust to the pass, and as Christensen put his hands on the ball a Le-Win defender was right there to defend the pass for an incompletion. Forreston would go back to the ground, but it was sniffed out by the Le-Win defense yet again, which forced Daws back to pass again. A double slant across the middle opened up a hole for Sam Barkalow to run a fade route, but the pass was short, and as Barkalow shifted to come back for the ball Le-Win's Sean Ormiston came up with a huge one handed catch for the interception, which would put the stamp on the game.
Le-Win would stave off Forreston's punches and go into victory formation 3 times to run off the remaining 24 seconds and 2 Forreston timeouts, as the Panthers clung to that 12-8 lead for the victory. With the win Le-Win advances to play for their 3rd state championship in 8 seasons. The loss for Forreston ended their season, but the seniors can go out knowing that they ended their careers with 2 state titles and a 14-2 record in the playoffs across their 4 seasons.
After Le-Win dominated the line scrimmage in the 1st half, it was Forreston who dominated the yardage in the second half, as they put up 189 yards to Le-Win's 73 yards, but the Panther defense stood tall time and time again to prevail.
On the day Forreston out gained Le-Win 283 yards to 202. Le-Win's Rahveon Valentine surpassed the 2,000 yard mark on the season as he finished with 32 carries for 122 yards. Ty Chrisman was 1 for 1 passing for 27 yards and 1 TD, as that pass to Gaige Schwartz in the 2nd quarter would prove to be the game winner. Chrisman also added 27 yards rushing on 5 attempts, however 3 of those attempts were simply to down the ball for victory. Sean Ormiston finished the day with 23 yards rushing on 11 carries, but his 2 INT in the 2nd half were key plays in ending Forreston drives.
For the Cardinals, AJ Christensen had a team high 96 yards rushing on 15 attempts and caught 4 passes for 83 yards and 1 TD. Hunter Daws was 7 for 13 passing for 141 yards passing with 1 TD and 2 INT. Gavin Fuchs would pitch in 23 yards rushing on 7 attempts and haul in 3 passes for 58 yards.
The Cardinals end their season with an 11-2 mark. Le-Win improves to 13-0 and will square off with 2010 state final adversary Tuscola, who also improved to 13-0 today after they knocked off Athens with a 21-14 win, for the state title at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb this Friday at 10 am.