ERIE – The 3A first-round playoff game between Erie-Prophetstown and River Valley resembled a game of keep-away for a while in the second half … and the Falcons were mastering it.
But once the Panthers got a fourth-down stop early in the fourth quarter, things started rolling their way once again.
Erie-Prophetstown scored on seven of its 10 possessions Friday night, picking up the program's first-ever playoff victory with a 50-28 win over River Valley at Wayne Hein Field.
"This wasn't just huge for us," senior Chris Bauer said. "We wanted to set the tone so the kids coming up behind us will just keep getting better and going further. I can't describe how good this first one feels … and now, we want more."
Nick Williams rushed for 165 yards and two game-clinching scores in the fourth quarter, and EP finished with 415 yards of total offense to River Valley's 289, outrushing the Falcons 389-135.
The Panthers (8-2) were unstoppable for most of the game. They opened with a nine-play, 67-yard scoring drive, then cashed in a River Valley fumble for another touchdown 4 minutes later.
After the Falcons (6-4) got on the board early in the second quarter, EP answered with a 10-play, 54-yard drive that chewed up more than 5 minutes, then forced the game's lone punt after a River Valley three-and-out.
The next possession gave the Panthers a 30-8 lead, as Ethan Howard hooked up with Bauer on the team's lone completion of the night; it went 26 yards for a touchdown right up the seam.
"We just couldn't get a stop, especially when we needed it," River Valley coach Galen Noard said. "We struggled to stop the run game all year, and they kind of shell-shocked us right off the bat with those two quick scores. Then, they just wore us down at the end."
River Valley refused to go away quietly. The Falcons scored with 39.9 seconds left before halftime, then intercepted a Howard pass near the goal line 29 seconds later to earn their first defensive stop of the game.
The Falcons opened the second half with a 15-play drive that included three fourth-down conversions, including the 21-yard TD pass to cap the possession, then capitalized on an EP fumble. Nine plays after the turnover near midfield – and after yet another fourth-down conversion – River Valley was within 30-28 with 11:27 to play.
"We were freaking out a little bit, because they just kept catching up closer and closer," Williams said. "But we calmed down and finally got a couple of stops late, and went back to what got us the lead."
After the Panthers stopped the 2-point conversion pass, their response was swift. After only running four plays the entire third quarter, Erie-Prophetstown went 56 yards in five plays, and Jordan Chandler ran in his second TD of the night to make it 36-28.
The next River Valley series finally saw an Erie-Prophetstown stop on fourth down, as Ken Cole put pressure on Falcons quarterback Tom Miller and forced a 2-yard loss. The Panthers then scored on another quick-strike, five-play drive, covering 68 yards in 2 minutes as Williams ran right up the middle for a 13-yard score.
On third down of the next River Valley drive, Bauer intercepted a tipped pass, and Williams' second TD capped a four-play, 55-yard drive to put the icing on the cake.
"They did a great job of keeping the ball away from us in the second half," Chandler said, "but once we got that first stop, the momentum changed in a big way, and we took it from there."
All three backs praised their physical offensive line, which paved the way for three rushers with at least 89 yards, and four different guys with TD runs. Howard had 99 yards and a score, while Chandler ran for 89 yards and two TDs. Bauer scored on the ground and through the air, and finished with 59 yards of total offense.
River Valley passed for 154 yards and two scores, and added 135 yards and two more TDs on the ground. Miller passed for 133 yards, but none of the Falcons' three rushers – Sam Poignant (59 yards), Nathan Helle (49 yards) or Miller (27 yards) – ran for more than 60 yards.
"I was definitely nervous; I kept waiting for us to make a play on defense," Erie-Prophetstown coach Chuck Milem said. "We were in the right spots to make plays on those fourth downs, but give them credit, because they made the plays and we didn't.
"Finally, we took advantage of the opportunity to get a couple of stops, and I knew if we stayed disciplined and ran the football the way we have all year, we'd get out of here with a W."
Class 3A Playoffs, first round
Erie-Prophetstown 50, River Valley 28
Star of the game: Nick Williams, EP, 23 rushes, 165 yards, 2 TDs
Key performers: Ethan Howard, EP, 99 rush yards, TD, 26-yard TD pass; Jordan Chandler, EP, 89 rush yards, 2 TDs; Tom Miller, RV, 133 passing yards, TD, 27 rush yards, TD
Up next: Class 3A playoffs, second round, Erie-Prophetstown vs. Stillman Valley/Bloomington Central Catholic winner, site & time TBA next Saturday