AFFTON, Mo. – Opportunities were available for the Central football team to cap a thrilling comeback on Friday night after being mostly manhandled in the first half.
Four turnovers were ultimately too many – including two that killed potential tying or go-ahead drives – and the Class 3 state quarterfinal round remained an impenetrable ceiling for the Rebels.
Lutheran South executed a daring play call within the final minute following a pivotal interception, and extended a breakthrough season on its home field with a 31-28 victory.
Cody Schrader rushed for 178 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries as the Lancers (9-3) advanced to face Mt. Vernon next Saturday in the state semifinals.
Central commenced a hopeful drive from its own 9-yard line with 2:58 to play, and approached midfield when senior quarterback Jace Bland scrambled twice to move the chains.
But a deep throw into double coverage never reached intended receiver Tanner Smith, as cornerback Jabari Harris tipped and then secured the clinching pick.
Lutheran South faced a third-and-8 situation from its own 7 after Central burned two timeouts, and a 25-yard pass from Vito Orlando to Isaiah Wilson sealed the win.
The Rebels (12-1) seized possession three separate times while trailing by seven points or less down the stretch, but the other two threats likewise failed to fully materialize.
Tyreece Welch lost his second fumble of the game with Bo Warner getting the recovery, and the Lancers converted a short fourth-and-3 pass to KeShon Spraggins on the ensuing drive.
Elijah Schumer booted a 22-yard field goal with 11:46 remaining to create a 31-21 spread, and those three points marked the difference in the final outcome.
Central responded nicely as Bland connected with Jake Casey for 18 yards on third-and-16, then floated a 33-yard pass to Welch out of the backfield.
Evan Sidebottom plowed in for a 4-yard touchdown with 7:27 remaining. Senior linebacker Jake Glenn intercepted Orlando moments later, but the Rebels punted following three incomplete passes.
Bland was 17-of-25 overall for 295 yards, including eight straight throws on target while leading brilliant back-to-back scoring drives in the third quarter.
Welch caught a 27-yard touchdown pass over the middle after the Rebels trailed 28-9 at halftime, then was awarded a 33-yard reception while sharing dual possession to the turf with Schrader.
Glenn notched his second rushing TD from 3 yards out, and the Central deficit shrunk to 28-21 with 7:23 still remaining in the third.
Welch had a team-high seven receptions for 131 yards, and Casey tallied five grabs for 125 yards. The Lancers limited dangerous tight end Will Hopkins to one catch on a screen play.
Both programs were looking to defy negative historic trends. Despite winning six consecutive district titles, the established Rebels have fallen each time in the next round.
The Lancers had not reached the quarterfinal step since 1983, and enjoyed only two wins during a miserable six-year stretch starting in 2003.
But Lutheran South displayed no characteristics of a perennial underdog in the first half. An empathic, six-play opening march served immediate notice.
Schrader bounced off, plowed through, and even spun around Central defenders with ease. Touchdown runs of 9 and 13 yards spotted his team an early 14-0 lead.
Dismal tackling plagued the Rebels throughout the first two quarters. Several quick throws from Orlando to his edge receivers turned into substantial gains due to yards after initial contact.
Central appeared to restore its composure with a key play on special teams as a rolling punt by Garrett Winkler was downed just inches from the goal line by Tyler Murray.
Defensive tackle Ethan Weiss dropped Schrader in the end zone for a safety, and the Rebels slashed the margin to 14-9 when an 18-yard burst by Sidebottom set up a Glenn touchdown.
Schrader retaliated with a twirling move after being hemmed in along the sideline, and raced 43 yards for his third scoring run of the contest.
Lutheran South struck again with 59 seconds left before intermission, as Spraggins caught a pass, broke one tackle and beat the remaining defenders to the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown.
Orlando was an efficient 14-of-17 passing for 234 yards, and favorite target R.J. Benkelman totaled six receptions for 103 yards. Warner recorded two sacks for the Lancers.
The Rebels regained their defensive identity in the second half, forcing three separate three-and-out series while yielding only 11 yards to Schrader.
Central lost reserve defensive back Dawson Day to an ejection after he was assessed two personal fouls on the same play in the third quarter.
Matt King is the sports editor for the Daily Journal. Contact him at email@example.com