Hillsboro’s Preston Nelson spins out of the grasp of a Halstead defender near the 10-yard line and completes the 13-yard touchdown pass reception during the first quarter of Thursday’s game.
The win vaulted Halstead into the state playoffs as the district runner-up with a 5-4 record overall and a 2-1 mark in the district.
Meanwhile, the Trojans, who needed to beat Halstead by 13 or more points to move on, completed a challenging season with a 3-6 record overall and an 0-3 finish in district play—thus ending a streak of seven consecutive years in the state playoffs.
Coming off an eight-turnover performance last week against Marion, the Trojans picked up Thursday where they left off, losing the football on a fumble on the game’s first play from scrimmage.
Halstead recovered the ball and was in the end zone in two plays, scoring on a 27-yard run by Christian Morris just 47 seconds into the contest.
Halstead returned the favor about 2 minutes later when Cody Craney recovered a fumble by Dragon running back Layke Heimerman at the Halstead 14-yard line.
Two plays later the Trojans tied the score when quarterback Jesse Brown connected with Preston Nelson for a 13-yard touchdown pass at the 8:39 mark.
But Halstead sandwiched a pair of touchdowns on either side of a Hillsboro three-and-out to claim a 21-7 lead. Dragon quarterback Blake Beckett scored on a 5-yard run at the 5:56 mark and Joseph Myers scored on a 10-yard run with 1:43 left in the first quarter.
That first quarter seemed to set the pattern for the rest of the game: Halstead would build a lead, occasionally aided by Trojan turnovers, then Hillsboro would find a way to claw back into contention.
At the 11:06 mark of the second quarter, a 12-yard scoring pass from Brown to Cody Delk pulled Hillsboro to within 21-14.
Jesse Meier then intercepted a Beckett pass around the Halstead 15-yard line and returned the ball to the 1. Two plays later, Brown threw to Jordan Faul for a 3-yard score that tied the game at 21 with 8:59 left in the first half.
But on the next possession, Elijah McKee intercepted a Brown pass and ran it back about 40 yards for a Halstead score. The Dragons bungled the extra point, but led 27-21 with 7:15 left in the half.
Late in the half, the Dragons launched an 11-play, 70-yard drive that was capped by a 4-yard scoring run by Beckett with 53 seconds to go.
Trailing 35-21 at the break, the Trojans rallied again when linebacker David Dick picked off a Beckett pass on the first play of the third quarter and ran it back 30 yards for a touchdown and Hillsboro was right back in it at 35-28.
Halstead eventually ended a temporary lull in scoring when Beckett scored from 2 yards out with 5:40 left in the third quarter.
Trailing 42-28, hard knocks hobbled Hillsboro again when Heimerman picked off a Brown pass at the Dragon 11-yard line on the third play of the fourth quarter.
That was the spark Halstead needed to complete an 89-yard drive in 10 plays with Beckett zig-zagging his way through the Trojan defense for the final 37 yards with 5:16 left in the game for the final 49-28 margin.
Though turnovers were a recurring theme from last week—four interceptions to go with one lost fumble—it was the lack of success in the trenches that ultimately shaped Hillsboro’s season.
Offensively, the Trojans couldn’t establish a running game. Against Halstead, they managed a mere 10 yards on 15 attempts.
“Having such a small, inexperienced line, it forced us to go more to the passing game,” coach Lance Sawyer said. “I think the line developed throughout the year, and in hindsight we needed to get back to running the ball to keep our offense balanced.”
Defensively, the Trojans struggled to stop their opponents on the ground The Dragons rolled up 295 rushing yards on 55 carries.
Without a ground attack, the Trojans lived and died with the passing game. Brown finished the season with a 21-for-42 performance against Halstead for 200 yards and three scores—but also threw eight interceptions in the final two games.
“I think the pressure of having to win, and the pressure of having to score, made us take a few more risks then we really wanted to make,” Sawyer said about the end of the season.
“Part of it was due to injuries—the reps in practice were not there—and the other part was that we became so one dimensional, teams were able to drop so many into coverage, which created tough reads for Jesse.”
Even so, Brown threw for 2,314 yards and 25 touchdowns this season. That placed him just behind Tyler in yardage (2,390) and tied Proffitt’s mark for touchdowns.