FAIRFIELD — For much of Saturday's IHSA Class 3A playoff football game in Fairfield, the host Mules played toe-to-toe with one of the more successful football programs in the southern half of the state. But in the end, the visiting Mater Dei Knights made just enough plays and wore down the Mules for a 21-6 win.
Mater Dei improves to 10-1 with the win, its 10th in a row. The Knights will host Quincy Notre Dame in the quarterfinals next weekend. Fairfield finishes its season with a 10-1 record.
"We talked to our guys at halftime and said they were going to be gassed," said Mater Dei coach Jim Stiebel. "They haven't had a team play against them into the second half all season. We just knew if we could keep it close in the second half we would prevail and we did."
The Knights scored all three of their touchdowns in the second half after trailing 6-0 at halftime. That was after managing just 91 yards in total offense in the first half.
Mater Dei took the lead for good on its first possession of the second half after Fairfield turned the ball over on downs. The Mules took the third quarter kickoff and went 28 yards on the first play, but stalled out and gave the Knights the ball at their own 35. Mater Dei covered the 65 yards in seven plays, getting in the end zone on a 31-yard pass play from Reed Braundmeier to Mitchell Haake and coverting on the extra point kick for a 7-6 lead.
Both coaches said the game turned in that series.
"We hit that big run play right off the bat and I felt like we were in a pretty good situation there," said Fairfield coach Justin Townsend. "Their defense, I give them credit. They were able to keep us out of the end zone except for one series. I think that was a big turning point in the game."
Stiebel said the turning point came just before the touchdown, when his team was flagged for an illegal block the play before.
"We ran a jailbreak screen right before that touchdown and our tackle came flying across the field and and waylayed a kid and hit him out of bounds and it was a clean play," Stiebel said. "I think all our kids got fired up about that and we said same play, same play and then threw it over the top."
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The two teams then traded turnovers, Landon Zurliene throwing an interception or Fairfield, and the Knights coughing the ball up on a fumble. But Farfield had to put on its next possession and Mater Dei capitalized, going 66-yards in just four plays to stretch the lead to 14-7. Nolan Foppe rumbled straight up the middle for nine yards for the score.
The Mules appeared poised to even things up, starting a drive late in the third quarter and marching 43 yards on 13 plays to get to the Mater Dei 32. But Zurliene was picked off again this time by Cameron Kreke.
Starting at their own 17 after a block in the back on the interception return, Mater Dei ran 5:31 off the clock going 83 yards on 11 plays to ice the game on an 8-yard run by Jayce Napovanice. Ironically, the long drive came after the Knights were flagged on the first play calling back an 80-yard touchdown run.
Fairfield's final drive went 37 yards into Mater Dei territory, but a missed pitch resulted in a fumble recovery and return to the Fairfield 25 and the Knights ran out the clock.
The Mules appeared to have all of the momentum at halftime, scoring on a three-yard run by Wyatt Gilbert on the final play of the half. The half was extended after Mater Dei was flagged for defensive pass interference in the end zone as time expired.
Fairfield was able to move the ball some, but could never get into the end zone again.
"We were hoping to be able to move the ball a little bit more in the run game," said Townsend. "It was a struggle up front. Their size is a little imposing for us."
The Knights pounded out 193 rushing yards, led by Zach Napovanice who had 110 yards on 10 carries. Braundmeier was 9-for-21 for 148 yards and a touchdown for Mater Dei. Haake caught four passes for 73 yards.
Fairfield got 72 yards rushing from Cade Carter and 59 from Gilbert on the way to 156 yards on the ground. Zurliene was 9-for-20 through the air for 85 yards.