As New Berlin Eisenhower and Wisconsin Lutheran went back-and-forth, whichever team received a big play from its defense first stood the best chance of advancing out of Level 1 of the WIAA Division 3 playoffs.
It was the defensive line of the Vikings that stepped up, as German Fitzgerald and Adler Peterson recorded three consecutive sacks that derailed Eisenhower's final drive and helped Wisconsin Lutheran to a 33-24 victory.
“It was a great high school football game,” Eisenhower coach Matt Kern said. “They finished their drives, and we didn’t finish our last one. Unfortunately, that was it.”
With the Lions down 27-24 and facing a 2nd and 8 at the 11-yard line of the Vikings as the clock dipped under two minutes, Fitzgerald dropped quarterback Bryce Miller for a loss of 19 yards. Miller was called for intentional grounding on the play, which added a 5-yard penalty to the loss.
Peterson then sacked Miller on consecutive plays, but he was called for a 15-yard facemask penalty on the second sack that gave Eisenhower a 4th and 35 from the 38-yard line.
With kicker Bryce Wesling having already drilled a 51-yard field goal, Kern decided to try the game-tying 55-yard field goal attempt.
Wesling slipped while trying to plant, leaving the kick well short with 1:12 to play.
“When you are comparing the options of 55-yard field goal or 4th and (35) -- Bryce had already made a 51-yarder and he has range to about 60,” Kern said. “Your odds aren’t great with either, but we thought our odds were better with the 55.”
One play later, Brian Corbins went untouched for an 80-yard touchdown to put the game away for Wisconsin Lutheran (7-3 overall).
"All the coaches were yelling to hold the ball," Corbins said. "I was like, ‘Why not score?’ You get an open run like that, you have to take advantage of it."
Eisenhower's defense forced two fumbles in the first quarter but only came away with three points on the 51-yard field goal by Wesling.
A 56-yard touchdown run by O.J. James put the Vikings up 7-3 with 10:31 left in the first half.
Eisenhower took the lead back on a 42-yard touchdown pass from Miller to Stephen Halusan, but Wisconsin Lutheran led 14-10 at halftime after a 28-yard touchdown run by Corbins.
Both teams scored on their first two possessions of the second half.
Eisenhower (7-3) struck first, using a 51-yard kickoff return by Jayden Olson to set up a five-play drive that ended on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Miller to Halusan that gave the Lions a 17-14 advantage.
After the Vikings answered to grab the back at 21-17 on a 7-yard run by James, Miller hit Joey Lang over the middle for an 11-yard score with 11:13 to play to make it 24-21.
On Wisconsin Lutheran’s ensuing drive, Corbins, who had already lost two fumbles, coughed up the ball again on the Eisenhower 3-yard line. Fortunately for the Vikings, offensive lineman Zach Krohn was there to fall on the ball for a touchdown.
The extra point was blocked by Max Maier, leaving Wisconsin Lutheran's lead at 27-24 with 5:04 left.
“He came out of nowhere,” Corbins said of Krohn. “I saw him grab the ball, and I started pushing him in there. If he wasn’t there, it would have been real bad.”
It took Eisenhower six plays to reach the Vikings’ 11-yard line, but the Lions would get no further. After being unable to get to Miller most of the night, the talented Wisconsin Lutheran defensive line made its mark to end the game.
Corbins ran 20 times for 196 yards, and James gained 121 yards on 12 carries for Wisconsin Lutheran, which will face top-seeded Catholic Memorial in Level 2.
The Lions played most of the second half without leading rusher Joey Scaffidi, who aggravated an ankle injury he first suffered Sept. 16 against New Berlin West. Scaffidi rushed for 31 yards on eight carries before exiting on the first drive of the second half. Jake Belongia led the Lions with 37 yards on six attempts.
Miller finished 14 of 21 for 193 yards with three touchdowns and an interception, while Halusan caught eight passes for 111 yards and two scores.
"Unfortunately for Joey, that thing just never quite got back to 100 percent," Kern said. "We kept getting him back to a point where he felt confident in it, and our trainer felt good about it, but it kept going on him."
Eisenhower has had its season ended by Wisconsin Lutheran in each of its last three trips to the playoffs. The Lions lost, 18-7, to the Vikings in Level 1 in 2015 and 28-17 in Level 2 in 2011.
"You get the feeling that you are really close," Kern said.