MERRILLVILLE | As he has done so many times in his brilliant career, Merrillville quarterback Jake Raspopovich faked a handoff to his halfback and sprinted around the end.
This time the Class 5A, Sectional 1 championship against Crown Point was on the line as the clock ticked away. Most of Friday night, Raspopovich found little running room against a tough Bulldogs' defense.
But with 1:33 remaining, Raspopovich found a lot of room around the left end on his way to a 47-yard touchdown that iced a 24-14 victory over the Bulldogs.
Merrillville (10-2) will host next week's regional against Fort Wayne Carroll.
"When you have two outstanding running backs, the defense keys on them," Raspopovich said moments after posing for photos with the sectional trophy. "I read my keys and just pulled it (out). I got two phenomenal blocks from my receivers and just took it to the house."
It was the biggest play of the second half for the Pirates, who were bottled up by a fired-up C.P. defense after taking a 17-0 halftime lead.
And it helped avenge last year's devastating loss to the Bulldogs in the sectional title game.
"Compared to last year, it feels so good to bring the hardware back to Merrillville," Raspopovich said. "Our defense saved us, and offensively we came together enough to bring the trophy back to our house."
A little Merrillville defense, and a lot of senior receiver Aaron Dye, was the difference in the first half. Dye made four catches for 116 yards, including TD receptions of 31 and 32 yards from Raspopovich. Matt Warren added a 39-yard field goal to account for all of the scoring before the break.
The Bulldogs (8-4) moved the ball, but couldn't take advantage of a Merrillville fumble and had three bad punts that gave the Pirates good field position.
But it was a different story in the second half, as the Bulldogs stifled Raspopovich and the Merrillville offense through the third quarter.
Meanwhile, Crown Point quarterback Jake Jatis continued to throw to senior receiver Zach Plesac to trigger the comeback.
The 'Dogs got within 17-7 on a 10-yard TD pass to Plesac with 8:57 remaining in the third quarter, and made it 14-7 on a 14-yard TD pass. Prior to that play, Plesac threw a 44-yard flea-flicker pass to Braxton Rice to set up the score.
Plesac finished with 12 catches for 151 yards. But Plesac also threw a pair of interceptions, one by Merrillville's TJ Deidigha on a ball tipped by Rice and another by Brandon Oliver that secured the victory in the final minute.
"It feels good to win a sectional championship," Merrillville coach Zac Wells said. "I don't know if it takes the bad taste out of my mouth from last year, I'm not sure I'll ever get over that.
"Crown Point made a heck of a run in the second half. Defensively, I like to think we're getting better as we are going on. They played well when our offense was struggling."
C.P. coach Kevin Enright finished his first season on a down note but said it was a successful season.
"There's not one thing in particular that you can point to," Enright said. "You have two great football teams, and it was a battle from the start in a game with emotion and intensity between two neighboring communities."