BROOKVILLE — Twenty-five yards and 25 seconds.
That’s all that stood between the Ell-Saline Cardinals and a memorable victory.
No. 1-ranked Smith Center drove 25 yards in the last two minutes and scored with 25 seconds left Friday night to thwart No. 4 Ell-Saline’s upset bid and escape with a 15-8 victory and a Class 1A district championship.
Smith Center fullback Hesston Maxwell scored from a yard out on third down and goal with the Redmen out of timeouts to clinch the victory. Quarterback Trenton Colby added the two-point conversion.
“I think we just stopped ourselves,” Maxwell said of the Redmen’s offensive struggles, which included four drives that stalled in the red zone — three on fourth-down stops and another on a Luke Parks blocked field goal at the end of the first half. “It turned out to be a good game.
“We just had to keep pounding the ball four yards at a time, and four yards turn into touchdowns really quick.”
The Redmen finished with 242 yards total offense, 234 on the ground out of their wishbone attack and racked up 17 first downs to just five for Ell-Saline. But the Cardinals put together one big third-quarter drive that kept them in the lead until the final minute.
“I feel like we can play with the best teams in the state and beat the best teams in the state,” said Ell-Saline junior Luke Parks, who was a key player on a Cardinal defense that made Smith Center grind for every yard. “If we make one or two more plays, we win the game.”
After Parks made a fourth-down stop at the Ell-Saline 9-yard line, killing a Smith Center drive that had taken more than 6 1/2 minutes off the clock, the Cardinals went to work. On a second down from the 27, Nick Davenport found Treyton Peterson down the left side for 56 yards, and on third and 14 from the Smith Center he hit Sawyer Kramer on the right for another 18 to the 3.
Davenport punched it into the end zone from 2 yards with 14 seconds left in the period, then ran for the two-point conversion to make it 8-7.
“We should probably have thrown the ball a little bit more,” Ell-Saline coach Terry King said. “But we didn’t want to give them the ball too quickly. We just couldn’t find a way to move the ball other than that one drive.
“And we never could get field position. It seemed like we played the whole game on our side of the 50.”
Ell-Saline came up with a big defensive stop with just under four minutes left when Colby was brought down on fourth down at the 7-yard line. But the Cardinals were unable to advance the ball and a short punt gave Smith Center the ball at the 25 with just enough time left.
“The kids played hard,” King said. “I was really proud of their effort.
“We can take some confidence from a game like this. I guarantee you (Smith Center) knew they were in a ballgame.”
Smith Center improved to 7-1 and won the district with a 3-0 record while Ell-Saline fell to 6-2 and 2-1. The Cardinals likely will play La Crosse next week in the first round of the playoffs.
For Smith Center, Maxwell led the way with 88 yards rushing on 20 carries and Colby Benoit had 84 yards on 18 attempts. Davenport had 30 yards rushing and Parks 22 for Ell-Saline, with Davenport completing 6 of 9 passes for 113 yards.
Peterson caught four passes for 86 yards.