FORRESTON — Taking on the reigning Class 1A state football champions, Annawan-Wethersfield knew nothing less than a championship-level performance would suffice in Saturday's second round.
After the top-seeded Titans built an 18-point first half advantages, the host Forreston Cardinals showed their state-champion credentials by rallying to take a pair of second half leads, the last on quarterback Bailey Cullor's 1-yard run with 5:32 left in the game.
But after a pair of long passes from A-W junior quarterback Coltin Quagliano to classmate Kale Nelson, the last a 42-yard bomb that put the Titans at the hosts' 2-yard line, junior halfback Reece Gripp scored with 3:20 on the clock, the decisive points in a thrilling 30-26 victory at Cardinal Field.
“My fumble (earlier in the game), I had that in my head, and it was frustrating me,” Gripp stated. “When we got down to the two, there was nothing that was going to stop me, no matter what.”
But before Annawan-Wethersfield could celebrate an 11-0 record and a berth in next weekend's Class 1A quarterfinals, the Cardinals (8-3) used their powerful running game to steadily march to the Titan 25-yard line with a minute remaining.
At that point, the A-W defense dug in for one last stand. After sacks by Brady Kelley and Tevin Baker moved Forreston back 10 yards, Cullor's fourth-down pass was intercepted by Kelley with just under 40 seconds left to secure the win.
“Everything was focused on that ball. That was all I saw,” said Kelley. “We came in here not thinking about them being defending state champions. The big thing for us was, we had to win this game. It was tough, it was crazy, we had to battle adversity.”
The adversity came when the momentum Forreston generated by a late second-period score turned into a run of 20 unanswered points after trailing 18-0. A 78-yard touchdown run by Austin Mitchell with 2:30 left in the third quarter capped the rally and put the Cardinals up 20-18.
The Titans regained the lead with 57.4 seconds left in the third when Quagliano hit Isaac Shaw with a 32-yard touchdown strike on fourth down. However, a Quagliano interception led to the Cardinals regaining the lead in the fourth quarter.
“I was definitely hurt at first, because that came so close to our end zone,” said Quagliano, who completed 16 of 30 passes for 408 yards and four TDs, three of which went to senior wide receiver Isaac Shaw (seven receptions, 216 yards).
“But Tyler Litton and our other coaches were talking to me and telling me we had time on the clock, more than five minutes, and that put all of our heads up high. We knew we had time, and we had to execute.”
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By executing when they needed to most, the Titans advance to a 1 p.m. Elite Eight showdown with fellow unbeaten Morrison next Saturday on their home turf at Wethersfield Memorial Stadium.
“It's going to be awesome,” A-W coach Logan Willits said of next weekend's showdown. “It'll have a local flavor to it. We're hoping to draw a huge crowd and get that thing rockin'.”
At the outset of Saturday's contest, the Cardinals tried to send the Titans reeling and rocking when Dom Christensen fell on an onside kick at the A-W 48-yard line.
Christensen then ripped off an 18-yard gain on the first play, but on a fourth-and-3 at the Titan 23, linebacker Drake VanHyfte stopped Braden Politsch 2 yards short of the first down, the first of two key first-half A-W defensive stands.
“Our defense in the first half did a tremendous job,” said Willits. “We kept them in third and medium range and were able to get stops.”
The Titans needed just three plays to cover 79 yards, the bulk of which came on Quagliano's 72-yard scoring pass to Shaw. The pair hooked up again on a 58-yard play, with Shaw taking a short pass and bursting up the middle to outrun the Forreston defenders to put A-W up 12-0 with 53.6 seconds left in the opening period.
“We knew coming in that they were not used to playing passing teams,” said Shaw. “We knew we could pick their defense apart with our passing concepts, and that's what we were able to do.”
After Forreston then drove into the red zone in search of its first points, but on fourth and 3 from the 15-yard line, Cullor bobbled the snap and had to fall on the ball for a one-yard loss.
The Titans converted that stop into an 85-yard scoring drive, with Quagliano's 13-yard scoring toss to Kelley putting them up 18-0.
However, the Cardinals ended the first half strong, getting on the board when Culler hit Jacob Boomgarden with an 8-yard TD pass on fourth down, and Christensen ran in the two-point conversion to make it an 18-8 game.
“We knew it was going to be a four-quarter effort, we knew we were not going to just stifle them. They're too good,” said Willits. “Their score before the half killed what we had flowing. In the second half, we were in bend, but don't break mode.”