MERRILLVILLE | Merrillville won the unofficial Duneland Athletic Conference tiebreaker Friday night, dominating Chesterton 45-21 in the Class 5A Sectional 1 semifinals at Demaree Stadium.
The victory avenged a 40-35 loss to the Times No. 4 Trojans just two weeks ago in the regular-season finale, and allows the Pirates (9-2) to host next week's sectional championship against Crown Point (8-3).
Turnovers, and an opportunistic offense, were the difference this time.
The No. 1 Pirates picked off Chesterton quarterback Chris Katsafaros three times and recovered two fumbles.
Junior safety Ryan Neal had a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovery to lead the Merrillville defense.
"We knew what the game plan was, and all we had to do was execute it and carry out what needed to be done," Neal said. "We all came together as one, 91 individuals as one."
Offensively, the Pirates received a huge boost from the return of senior running back Dylon Collins.
Thought to be lost for the season, Collins started the game and finished with 121 yards rushing on 12 carries, including an 80-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.
Collins looked a bit slow early on in his first few carries, but broke loose for a 17-yard run on his first carry of the second quarter.
The Pirates came back from an early 7-0 deficit, putting together a pair of long scoring drives and ending in 1-yard touchdown runs by Bryant Isabell, Collins' backup, to take a 14-7 lead to start the second.
Chesterton evened the score at 14-14 with the only Joe Troop highlight of the night, a 73-yard scoring strike from Katsafaros. Other than that, Troop was held in check. He had only one other catch for no gain, and rushed nine times for a net of 17 yards.
Merrillville took control at the end of the half. Matt Warren kicked a 25-yard field goal, and the Pirates got the ball back on the Chesterton 27 with 34 seconds remaining after a short Trojans' punt.
Merrillville quarterback Jake Raspopovich scored on a 1-yard run as time expired. He had spiked the ball with 0.7 seconds on the clock, and the Pirates were going to kick another field goal but decided to go for the touchdown after a Chesterton timeout.
The Pirates continued to dominate in the second half. Joe Cowser scored on 3-yard pass from Raspopovich, and then Collins broke free on his 80-yard run with 1:29 remaining in the third for a 38-14 lead.
Raspopovich added a 5-yard scoring run to start the fourth quarter for a 45-14 advantage. Merrillville amassed 464 yards of offense, with Raspopovich throwing for 233 yards.
"I'm just proud of our guys," Merrillville coach Zac Wells said. "They've worked their tails off to become better football players."
Chesterton (9-2) lost to the Pirates in the sectional semifinals for the third year in a row.