PANA -- It's a terrifying question to answer down one with less than a minute in a playoff game: tie it up with the sure PAT or risk the 2-point conversion for the win?
As Pana's coaching staff looked at each other, it was unanimous.
Let's roll the dice.
The Panthers pulled out a play from the first quarter, the one that started their scoring. Pitch to Jack Clark, who reverses it to the speedy Dalton Anderson. And just like the first time, Anderson flew into a wide-open end zone to complete Pana's 36-35 comeback against Marshall.
"They decided to go for it, so the game was in my hands," Anderson said. "No doubt, I was putting that ball in. There was no one stopping me."
For Pana coach Trevor Higgins, the hard choice was whether to kick or not. He already knew what play he would run.
"Kudos to coach (Mark) Ramsey and the old Central A&M days," Higgins, an 2003 A&M grad. "We actually scored on that in the state game in 2001. Brock Boltz scored on that and I've had it with me ever since. I love that play."
It was especially tough considering how reliable Pana's kicker, Jake McLeod, had been. The soccer star has a strong leg and drilled all four attempts earlier in the day.
Even after the score, Marshall still had 52 seconds for its own heroic moment. But four plays in, Daniel Duduit snagged Marshall quarterback's Brock Finkbiner's pass to seal it.
The 2-point conversion completed a comeback that was in the works for the entire second half. Marshall held a 21-7 lead heading into halftime and Pana spent the next 23 minutes slowly whittling away.
They tied the game at 28 with six minutes left after quarteback Jacob Beeson took a keeper wide left and dove toward the pylon for a score. Marshall responded, putting together a 10-play touchdown drive that included its own risky play of going for it on 4th-and-3 on its own 40.
Beeson and the Panthers offense got the ball back at their own 20 and the passing game steadily moved downfield that involved everyone except the lineman touching the ball.
Ian Harbert's run. A Seth Vaughn catch followed by a Daniel Duduit catch. An Anderson run set up a Blake Stauder catch and a Beeson run.
After a couple more pass plays, Pana was still sitting 30 yards away from the end zone. So, Beeson and Stauder modified a corner route into a post route where Stauder could haul in a touchdown in the back of the end zone.
"That wasn't even the right play," Stauder said. "We just put that in at the very last second. Our line did a great job for Beeson to give him plenty of time to throw it."
It capped a second half where Pana's offense scored on all four possessions. After a first half where a massive Marshall line -- led by 6-foot-5, 320-pound Wesley Minogo -- turned Pana's plan into one that tried to get the ball into open space, the Panthers went back to their bread and butter in the second half.
"We thought our speed was going to have to win us the game," Higgins said. "And after the first half, we went into the coaches office there and looked at some of the Hudl Assist and saw we could run on them up the middle, up the gut. And so we said, let's do it. It's what got us here."
Harbert, after two rushes for six yards in the first half, had 13 more in the second to finish with 90 yards. Beeson picked up his game as well, finishing 23-of-30 for 246 yards.
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All season, the second-half comeback against Carlinville has been a rallying point for the Panthers.
After Saturday, they might have a new one.
"There's been a lot of games, but this is definitely a lot more intense," Pana linebacker Nick McMillen said. "2005 is when Marshall beat us on a touchdown pass that was controversial, but I think this one definitely tops Carlinville."
What a game
Very rarely does it happen where two high school teams are evenly matched enough for a game like this to happen. And with Class 3A loaded with nine and eight win teams, it's unlikely that a matchup with two 8-1 teams would have met so early.
But they did, and it couldn't have been more dramatic. Now comes the team that topped Marshall in the Little Illini -- Newton.
On razor's edge
As thrilling, as exciting as the win was, Higgins noted how much the sentiment could have changed if the 2-point conversion didn't work.
"I think so," he said about this being a new favorite Pana game. "And I also think if we didn't score that 2-point, we'd be having a different conversation, and I think the fans would have a little different opinion on us as a staff."
When you need a play
Stauder's been Pana's home run hitter this year, averaging more than 21 yards per catch this season.
Saturday, he did it all. Catching in traffic and turning quick routes into big gains up the sideline before his final haul where he got his feet down just in time. It wasn't lost on Higgins. When Stauder's man was playing him close late in the game, he knew there was an opportunity waiting.
"Blake Stauder's an amazing receiver," Higgins said. "He had a foot injury last year where he broke his ankle and they put screws in and all year he's battled that ankle.
"Today actually looked like the old Blake Stauder with his speed and ability to catch the ball."
"I think there was a little hesitation, but then we knew with that same play we got that first touchdown on, might as well. Go for it all or go home." -- McMillen