One final big play.
That's what Blue Springs High School's defense was hoping to deliver on a night where big plays were the standard, rather than the exception.
Facing a fourth-and-4 from the Wildcats 19, Thomas Ganaden stepped back and found DeMarcus Edwards on a slant pass that had shredded the Blue Springs defense much of the night.
But not on this play.
Gunnar Strickland drilled the Titans running back with 3:24 left in regulation to preserve his team's 42-35 lead.
Moment later, Ian Brown hit Darrius Shepherd on the final first-down big play for the rock-solid Wildcats offense, and the final seconds ticked down, leading to a wild celebration on the Blue Springs sidelines.
The marquee matchup, which featured the No. 1 Class 6 Wildcats and No. 1 Class 5 Titans, did the impossible – it surpassed all the pre-game hype and became an instant classic.
“They don't get much better than this,” Wildcats coach Kelly Donohoe said after his reigning state championship team improved to 4-0 and gained bragging rights, as the Titans were the only team to hand Blue Springs a loss in 2012.
“There were so many great, great players and great plays on the field tonight, and the environment for a football game doesn't get much better than this.”
A crowd estimated at more than 8,000 filled bleachers on three sides of the stadium and stood 10 deep in the end zone.
“This is like the old days when Blue Springs played Rockhurst before the games were televised or broadcast,” former Blue Springs coach and activities director Tim Crone said. “This is one of those football games you never forget.”
When asked about the big-play performance of both teams, Donohoe smiled and said, “Gunnar's stop was huge. We hadn't done very well against that slant, and he sniffed it out and stopped them short of the first down, or we might still be playing.
“And what can you say about Shep? He had maybe the biggest play of the night when he had that pick six early in the game when they were leading 7-0. If they go up 14-0, it can be an entirely different game.”
After a quick Titan touchdown drive the Wildcats fumbled the ball back to the Titans at midfield. But Shepherd turned the tables on the Titans, picking off Ganaden at midfield and returning the ball down the far sideline to knot the score at 7-all.
“We needed a big play and Shep delivered,” said Wildcats running back Dalvin Warmack, who carried the ball 25 times for 211 yards and three touchdowns. “There's a reason we call him the X-Factor – he always plays a big role in our wins.”
Shepherd said he knew the defense had to prevent the Titans from taking a two-touchdown lead.
“They have so many great athletes,” he said, “that I played a lot more defense tonight than I usually do. But look at all the big plays we made on both sides of the ball. Dalvin had a great night, Elijah (Lee) had the big touchdown and Gunnar makes that last tackle to give us the ball. It was a great night for high school football.”
Lee was the most alert player on the field when Ganaden flipped a lateral pass that deflected off a running back's hands.
“No one was moving, except the official,” Lee said, grinning. “I saw him start pedaling backwards so I thought I better pick up the ball and run along with him. When I saw him keep running I took off for the end zone and wound up scoring.
“I don't think most guys even knew what was going on.”
But Donohoe and his staff did.
“Elijah is a great athlete who has a high football IQ,” Donohoe said. “A big play, a heads-up play. We needed that score.”
And the Wildcats needed that one big play to shut down the 3-1 Titans, which Strickland delivered.
“I knew they were going to throw that slant, and I knew we were going to stop it,” Strickland said. “We weren't going to let them get that final first down. We wanted the game to end there – and it wound up ending when Shep made his first-down catch. Then, we were all able to breathe a little bit easier.”