ST. JOHN | An intimidating, big-band, senior-night atmosphere with the right to the driver’s seat in the conference race did not deter DJ Wilkins or his teammates.
In a reverse of the cliche “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Merrillville started well and made enough plays on defense down the stretch to escape Lake Central with a 20-17 Duneland Athletic Conference win over the Indians.
The Times No. 2 Pirates beat the No. 3 Indians for the 16th consecutive time dating back to 2002. They also clinched at least a share of the DAC title.
Billed as a potential defensive stalemate, the game had two touchdowns in the first 96 seconds and a third when the game was barely seven minutes old.
The huge, vaunted defenses eventually stepped up and made running nearly impossible for both tailbacks, and turnovers and field position created a shaky ground down to the final two minutes when Merrillville was able to kneel the ball comfortably.
After the teams came out of halftime tied at 14, Merrillville scored on its first possession of the half, to go up 20-14 following a missed kick.
The Pirates (7-1, 6-0) opened the game with a three-play scoring drive capped by a 69-yard bomb from sophomore quarterback DJ Wilkins to Tyrie Fuller. On their third possession the Pirates struck again, with Fuller hitting Jonathan Robinson for a 61-yard touchdown pass and a 14-7 lead.
“Had that not happened early in the game, for sure, it would have been a tough thing to come back from,” Merrillville coach Zac Wells said. “(Lake Central had) a good defense, but I think the one thing our offense did was they came off the bus pretty well and ready to play. We just need to maintain the consistency a little bit. We’re getting to the point in the season that that should be the expectation.”
Wilkins threw for 289 yards and three scores, the last one to Robinson for the junior’s second of the night and what turned out to be the game-winner with 8:43 to go in the third quarter.
Fuller had seven catches for 142 yards and Robinson had three for 89 with the two touchdowns.
Neither team eclipsed 80 yards rushing on the night.
Lake Central (6-2, 5-1) answered Merrillville’s first score with a nine-yard touchdown from Ethan Darter to John Gbur, but Darter was 17-for-38 passing and misfired on 10 of his final 12 attempts in the clutch before a Hail Mary completion past midfield on the game’s final play.
"We had some issues up front with them," Lake Central coach Brett St. Germain said of the Indians forgoing the run in the second half and throwing much more than normal. "(Ethan Darter) will get better from situations like this. When you play in games like this you will learn from it. We're riding with him right now."
Alec Olund made some cameos at quarterback. Last year’s starter ran for an 18-yard touchdown with 8:33 to go in the first half to tie the game.
Lake Central halved Merrillville’s lead when Jillian Doan kicked a 27-yard field goal with 5:26 to go, but the Indians couldn’t overcome three interceptions and rampant incompletions in the passing game.
Merrillville had a chance to increase its lead with 2:24 to go, but a 28-yard field goal attempt went wide left. Four straight incompletions by the Indians gave Merrillville the ball and the victory formation opportunity.