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MURPHYSBORO HEADING TO STATE FINAL ... Red Devils survive at Effingham to advance to Class 4A championship game

  • Aiden McNitt tries to pick up an extra yard or two during one of five carries last Saturday afternoon against Effingham.

    Aiden McNitt tries to pick up an extra yard or two during one of five carries last Saturday afternoon against Effingham.
    Paul Brinker photo

updated: 12/12/2019 4:15 PM

The Murphysboro Red Devils just keep finding ways to survive.

On Saturday in Effingham, Jake Hoppenstedt hauled in a tipped nine-yard touchdown pass in overtime for a 20-17 win over the Flaming Hearts in the semifinals of the IHSA Class 4A Playoffs.

The Red Devils, averted disaster with under 40 seconds remaining in regulation when Zane Caraway fell on a fumbled snap at the Murphysboro six-yard line.

That was a huge break. Effingham had a good field goal kicker. He never got the chance to win the game on the last play of regulation. The Red Devils caught a break.

It wasn't the first break of the postseason for Murphysboro.

"I don't know if we caused that turnover,'' Murphysboro coach Gary Carter said. "But they turned it over and the good Lord was shining upon us. I feel very fortunate to be where we're at."

Where the Red Devils (11-2) are at is the Class 4A championship game. They will take on undefeated Richmond-Burton in that title game at 7 p.m. on Friday night in DeKalb at Huskie Stadium on the campus of Northern Illinois University.

Murphysboro was about as close and it could get to seeing its season end on Saturday before the fumble recovery by Caraway.

But in overtime, the Flaming Hearts (11-2) got the ball first. But they had to settle for a 23-yard field goal by Ivan Angel for a 17-14 advantage.

Then it was Murphysboro's turn. The Red Devils had four downs to go 10 yards and win the game.

It wound up only taking two plays, though the first play nearly led to disaster when Dezmond Clark took a handoff and looked to make a cut up field on the right side. Just as he was about to cut he was hit from behind and the ball fell to the ground. But the Red Devils caught a break when it rolled out of bounds before any Effingham players could get their hands on it.

On the very next play, Hoppenstedt went in motion toward the left sideline. Jamarr McZeke then took the snap and rolled that way before throwing toward Hoppenstedt.

Effingham had the play covered pretty well and a defender tipped the pass. But the ball continued toward Hoppenstedt, who caught it and ran into the front corner of the end zone to give Murphysboro the victory.

"Jake was Jamarr's first read with that play,'' Carter said. "And I thought he threw it too late. Their kid makes a heck of a play and it bounces our way. Unbelievable."

It was all Effingham could do to keep the ball from bouncing in the first half.

The Flaming Hearts had two bad snaps during punts, the first of which led to a safety and a 2-0 lead for the Red Devils at the 4:21 mark of the first quarter.

The safety led to a free kick, and Murphysboro would take that and eventually march 51 yards for an 8-0 lead following a two-yard TD run by Aiden McNitt with 11:50 remaining in the second period.

The Red Devils would go up 14-0 on the last play of the first half when Clark found the end zone from six yards out.

The 14-point cushion at halftime was good. But it could have been better, as the Red Devils were stopped twice inside the Effingham 15-yard line in the first half.

Effingham would right its ship during the break and mostly dominate in the second half.

The Flaming Hearts got a 33-yard TD pass from Nathan Shackelford to Tristin Duncan with eight minutes left in the third quarter to pull within one score at 14-7.

Effingham would tie the game at 14-14 with 8:40 left in regulation when Duncan and Shackelford hooked up for a 60-yard touchdown.

Murphysboro would eat five minutes off the clock on its next possession. But the drive stalled just past midfield and the Red Devils were forced to punt.

Effingham took over at its own 23-yard line with 3:21 to go in the fourth period, and the Flaming Hearts ran six plays before finding themselves on the Murphysboro six-yard line with under a minute left.

That's when Caraway came up with the huge fumble recovery. Murphysboro ran out the clock and prepared for overtime, where Hoppenstedt would be the hero.

"The resiliency of our kids to keep fighting and keep believing ... I told them in the huddle for overtime they had to keep believing,'' Carter said. "They believed."

The Red Devils finished with 233 yards of offense. McZeke accounted for a good portion of those by connecting on 8-of-12 pass attempts for 130 yards.

Effingham had just 24 yards of offense in the first half. But the Flaming Hearts took to the air in the second half and finished with 284 yards. Shackelford threw for 232 yards, and Duncan hauled in seven passes for 164 yards.