DU QUOIN -- The game was basically over. Until it wasn't.
The Du Quoin Indians, having missed a golden opportunity to score with first-and-goal at the 1, gave the ball back to Monticello with less than two minutes to play.
The Sages, leading 25-21, simply had to run out the clock. But on third down from the 1, Dajon Johnson knocked the ball out of the running back's hand.
Braden Higgins picked up it for the touchdown and the Indian victory, 28-25, in the opening round of the Class 3A playoffs on Saturday at Van Metre Field.
The 6-foot-6, 260-pound defensive tackle delivered the biggest touchdown of the season when Du Quoin needed it the most.
"This is awesome, and that was one of my biggest goals throughout my high school career," said Higgins, who has gotten interest from Eastern Kentucky and SIU among other schools.
"We had them close to the end zone, and we had to keep pushing because the game wasn't over. This is just unbelievable."
That's one way to put it. The Sages and their fans were stunned.
It was ultimately a false start penalty from the 6 that did them in. The Indians almost got a safety earlier in the series, too.
Spencer Brown caught a short touchdown pass from Nic Tackels, and Monticello grabbed a 25-21 advantage with 6:44 left in the contest.
That's when the Du Quoin passing attack started to make some noise.
Quarterback Alex Zimmerman completed passes to Braeden Pursell, Jacob Green, and Wade Roberson (twice) to get the ball near the goal line. It was an excellent late drive -- except for the fizzle of an outcome.
"A lot of those plays weren't originally open, but I just scrambled, and they were able to free up," Zimmerman said. "If you can't get the ball in from the 1-yard line, you don't deserve to win. God gave us the strength to win. I still can't even believe we won. This is just amazing."
That's another way to put it. The Indians endured a rough first quarter where nothing went right. Du Quoin lost yardage on a half dozen plays, and Monticello took a 12-0 lead seven seconds into the second quarter on Spencer Brown's 37-yard touchdown reception.
Du Quoin played much better football after that. Kadin Mays gained 31 yards on a running play, which set up a 6-yard scoring pass from Zimmerman to Roberson. Mays followed that up with an interception on Monticello's first play of its next drive.
The biggest moment of the first half was a fourth-down play from the 8 with just over a minute left. Pursell got open in the end zone and hauled in a touchdown catch to give the Indians their first lead of the afternoon.
"It was a big play, and I knew it was coming for me, so I had to get my head straight and make sure I caught the ball," Pursell said.
"We have a lot of confidence moving on. We hadn't won a playoff game in two years. This is a big opportunity for us."
The Du Quoin defense enjoyed a number of crucial plays. Ethan Zettler intercepted a pass in the end zone to end the first half, and Chance Norris recorded a key sack on third down. Logan Robinson also sacked Tackels for a huge loss early in the fourth quarter.
Perhaps the most impressive defensive feat was keeping Monticello running back Chris Brown in check. The senior averaged 142 yards per game this season, but the Indians held him to just 57 yards in this game.
Tackels did throw for 252 yards. Matt Kerr caught five passes, including a 60-yard reception, which set up a field goal early in the game.
Konner Harris contributed a 27-yard touchdown run in the third quarter for Du Quoin as well.
"Gosh, I don't know that I've ever seen a game end like that," said Du Quoin coach Derek Beard. "Our defense played a heck of a game. Our guys were down after we didn't score there late and thought the game was over. We told them just to keep playing."
The Indians (9-1) will indeed keep playing, this time with a trip to Williamsville where they'll face the undefeated Bullets in the second round.
The game takes place at 2 p.m. Saturday with a trip to the 3A quarterfinals on the line.