CHESTERTON | On a night of prolific offense, a big defensive play gained a share of the Duneland Athletic Conference title for Chesterton.
The Times No. 4 Trojans stopped No. 1 Merrillville inches short of a first down on fourth down at its 10-yard line with 2:27 left to help preserve a wild 40-35 victory that pulled them into a tie atop the DAC with the Pirates.
"It's like the football movie, "Any Given Sunday." They talk about it being a game of inches," Chesterton coach John Snyder said. "This game was decided by one inch. It's a special night, senior night for my son (A.J.) and this group of guys. I'm extremely happy for this group."
With Chesterton (8-1, 6-1) working to run out the clock, Chris Katsafaros scampered 18 yards on a bootleg for a decisive first down. He ran out the final 2.2 seconds, kneeling at the 1-yard line after the siren sounded.
"This means a lot, especially from last year," said Katsafaros, who was limited by an ankle injury against the Pirates in 2011. "That hurt me."
Joe Troop gashed the Pirates for 216 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, many of them off Katsafaros option pitches. Katsafaros added 110 yards and Jon Horvath scored a pair of second-half TDs.
"We were able to get out on their corners and safeties," Katsafaros said. "Sometimes, they took Joe. Sometimes, they took me. Either way, one of us was going to break one. Our perimeter blocking was really amazing. If it wasn't for that, we wouldn't have been able to hit the corner."
Troop went 75 yards on his second carry, a counter play that went the distance untouched. He had gallops of 22, 30, 34 and 43 yards.
"There was no hole and then it was like, boom, the Red Sea opened, and it was off to the races," Troop said of his score. "Coach was saying they had to get me more touches. Six, eight times wasn't doing it. We had a specific formation where I was coming out of the backfield and we ran that more often."
Troop also lofted a pass on a fourth-and-3 in the second quarter that Mitch Kobitz pulled down and took in for a 39-yard score to tie the game at 14.
"You took about big players making big plays at big times," Snyder said. "Joe epitomized that tonight. He's the one guy we have who equals their speed. Chris read the option well and our perimeter blocking was very solid."
The game took a pivotal swing late in the half. Chesterton took its first lead with 1:31 left when Andrew Ralph stepped in front of a Jake Raspopovich pass and raced 39 yards to the house.
"That was huge, with us getting the ball to start the second half," Snyder said.
A long Troop kickoff return to start the second half and a 43-yard run set up a Katsafaros scoring sneak that put Chesterton up 28-14.
"I don't know what it is, but once our offense gets going, it's hard stopping us," Troop said. "Once we got the two-touchdown lead, we were confident that even if we gave them one, we'd come back, no matter what. Kudos to our defense for stopping them."
The Trojans fended off the Pirates the rest of the way, but not without a lot of nerves. Merrillville (7-2, 6-1) crept within 40-35 with seven minutes left Raspopovich hit a wide-open Aaron Dye for a 43-yard score.
The Pirates then recovered an onside kick at the Chesterton 48 and reached the 10 before the pivotal stop.
Raspopovich threw for 318 yards -- with Dye accumulating 103 and two TDs on the receiving end -- and also ran for 91 yards with a pair of scores.
The win was Chesterton's first over Merrillville since the 2006 season, a stretch that included 10 losses to the Pirates. The Trojans' other DAC titles came in 2008 and 2000.
"This is probably one of the biggest prizes I could ever ask for," Troop said. "To win, especially against Merrillville, with all the history, it's very nice."
Barring upsets next week, the teams will meet again in the sectional semifinals.
"They're such a great program, I'm sure a lot of teams struggle against them," Snyder said. "Plus we catch them at the end of the season, which we may do again here. We're going to post 'co-conference champions' on the board, put it to rest and see if we can go win another championship."