DU QUOIN — A.J. Hill’s philosophy is to let the players play.
That outlook paid off in a big way for his Du Quoin Indians on Friday night. Du Quoin scored on long touchdown passes at the end of each half to walk away with a 21-17 win over Herrin at Van Metre Field.
The decisive touchdown came on a bit of chicanery with 2:19 left in the game.
Trailing 17-14 at the time, the Indians faced a fourth-and-four at the Herrin 27 and Du Quoin lined up three-deep in the I-formation. Tight end Charley Mercier came off the line and fell to the turf, but got up and rumbled down to about the 15.
“We just put that play in this week,” said Du Quoin coach A.J. Hill. “It was one that was good for us last year. It’s a tough one to stop. Our guys just executed it well. We make Charley do a little acting on that play. He goes down and comes out the other side. He stayed with it.”
Quarterback Hank Stewart had to give ground due to Herrin’s pressure before throwing the ball off balance Mercier’s way. Herrin’s Tate Johnson leaped to knock the ball down, but the ball got over his outstretched arms and nestled into Mercier’s hands.
“We kind of draw it up like that, but we didn’t expect that much pressure,” said Hill. “Hank is a playmaker. He likes to play a little backyard football. You don’t always know what he’s going to do, but you just have to trust him. He did a great job tonight.”
After gathering in the football, Mercier rumbled untouched into the end zone for the deciding score.
“It seemed like that ball hung in the air forever,” said Herrin coach Jason Karnes. “We were there. They made plays when they had to. We didn’t execute well tonight. Our hats are off to Du Quoin. They’re a well-coached team. They are undefeated for a reason.”
The winning touchdown was set up by an outstanding defensive play by Du Quoin’s Ashton Smith. Herrin’s potent ground attack was pounding the ball down the field, eating up the clock.
On third and two from the Du Quoin 28, Herrin gave the ball to workhorse tailback Jase Gosha. Gosha, who finished the game with 98 yards rushing, appeared to have a lane to the outside, but Smith, sliding along the turf, tripped Gosha up for a loss.
That gave Du Quoin just over five minutes to march 69 yards for the winning score.
Du Quoin also scored on a long pass play to end the first half. Trailing 9-7 at the time, Stewart found Will Woodside open deep in Herrin territory. Again, a Herrin defender was on the spot, but Woodside made the grab for a 44-yard score with just 35 seconds left in the half.
Stewart finished with 112 passing yards on just five completions.
“Sometimes I think that is when our kids are the most comfortable,” Hill said. “They’re a close-knit group. Towards the end of the game you can just let loose and make plays. That’s what Hank did and that’s what our receivers did tonight. We have a lot of playmakers out there on offense and defense. We just have to let them play and not over-coach them.”
Herrin regained the lead late in the third quarter when Gosha scored on a two-yard run. The senior tailback tacked on the two-point conversion, giving the Tigers a 17-14 advantage.
However, it was the 3-0 Indians that made the big plays down the stretch. Herrin is 2-1 heading into SIRR Ohio Division play. Du Quoin also scored its first touchdown on a big play, a 36-yard run by Westly Milam.
“We went in spurts,” Karnes said. “We just weren’t very consistent. I think we learned a lesson tonight. We have to practice a little bit better. We didn’t have a very good week of practice. That’s on me. We have to get better. I got a lot more positives than negatives out of this. Hopefully, we learned a lesson.”