MERRILLVILLE — 2:54.
Those numbers separated Rensselaer Central from Andrean Friday night in a Class 2A Sectional 33 championship match-up at Father Eckert Stadium.
The Bombers, who lost eight fumbles in their first 11 games, committed two in a span of 2 minutes, 54 seconds to open the game to fall behind 13-0. That forced RCHS to play catch-up the rest of the night in suffering a 44-34 loss to the 59ers.
The Niners (9-3), who last won a sectional title in 2014 which is also the same year Rensselaer won its last sectional, advances to the regional round where they will host No. 1 ranked Lewis Cass (11-1) next Friday.
No. 10 ranked RCHS, which had its season come to an end at 9-3, had four turnovers in the game to none for the Niners. The Bombers lost three fumbles, none of which were forced.
“You can’t commit turnovers like we did, let alone two of them in our red zone,” Bombers coach Chris Meeks said. “We had a great week of practice and did not have an issue at all, and for whatever reason, we put the ball on the ground twice and they capitalized on it. Then they score another one on just a handoff. It’s not characteristic of our team, but it happened tonight.
“Give our kids credit. They battled tonight for 48 minutes.”
On the game’s second play from scrimmage, a fumbled exchange gave Andrean the ball at Rensselaer’s 16-yard yard line. The Niners needed just two plays to punch in their first score, a 13-yard touchdown run by Ryan Walsh.
That came at the 10:38 mark of the first quarter. On the Bombers’ very next offensive play, the ball was again dropped on an exchange and Andrean recovered at RCHS’s 17-yard line.
This time, Andrean used three plays to score its second touchdown, capped by Nicky Flesher’s 17-yard touchdown pass from Noah Hamilton for a 12-0 lead.
Kicker Joel Wadas, who had his first extra-point kick blocked — one of four blocks by Rensselaer’s special teams on the night — converted the extra point after his team’s second score for a 13-0 edge.
The Bombers did manage to draw within a score on their very next possession, using a 14-play drive that began from their 23-yard line to cut the lead to 13-6. Senior quarterback Eli Hickman’s 12-yard run with 2:51 in the first quarter put RCHS on the scoreboard, but his extra-point kick was blocked.
Andrean took its biggest lead of the game at 32-13 to open the second half, moving the ball 60 yards in just three plays. Hamilton’s 37-yard toss to Flesher for a TD was followed by a Wadas extra-point kick with 10:29 left in the third period.
Each time Andrean would score, Rensselaer would answer. In fact, the Bombers scored on five of six possessions that didn’t end with a fumble and totaled 519 yards, including 445 yards rushing.
“You can rep it as many times as you want, there’s just no way to replicate the speed, the intensity and all the bodies pulling,” Andrean coach Chris Skinner said of Rensselaer’s offense. “It’s just not something we do. We tried our best this week and I felt like we did okay. But then you get in the game and they find things to expose you here and there and they exposed us in the second half.”
With the Bombers trailing 32-20 after junior Dalton Kidd’s 41-yard touchdown run along the sideline with 6:21, Rensselaer’s defense forced Andrean to punt for the first time, giving the visitors a chance at putting another score on the board.
The Bombers moved the ball from their own 17 to midfield, receiving very little resistance from Andrean’s defense. But on the eighth play of the drive, a fumbled exchange put the football on the ground where it was picked up by Walsh and carried 67 yards the other way for a back-breaking score with 25 seconds left in the third period.
“It comes down to ball security and taking care of the ball,” Skinner said. “Tonight, we saw that play out and benefiting us. But you’ve got to take advantage of those mistakes, because if we hadn’t, you saw how close this game was.”
Rensselaer’s fourth blocked extra-point kick kept Andrean from adding to its 38-20 lead.
The Bombers did get a five-yard TD run and an extra-point kick from Hickman to close the gap at 38-27, but Walsh’s 35-yard touchdown run put Andrean up 44-27 with 8 minutes remaining.
The Niners’ two-point conversion run was stopped and the Bombers took just 15 seconds off the clock after Kidd’s 80-yard touchdown run capped the scoring a 44-34.
Rensselaer did stop the hosts on downs on the Niners’ next possession, but had just over a minute left to work with. An interception by Andrean with 15 seconds left punctuated the Niners’ win.
Walsh had a game-high 166 rushing yards on 22 carries with three touchdowns. Hamilton was 6 of 7 passing for 126 yards and two scores.
“Tonight was one of those games where every yard mattered, where every first down mattered,” Skinner said. “Our boys understood that and got the job done.”
Senior running back Noah Bierma gained 138 yards on 29 carries with a score and Kidd had 153 yards on just seven carries with two scores. Junior Addison Wilmington had six carries for 84 yards to go over the 1,000-yard mark for the season and Hickman rushed for 73 yards on 12 carries and passed for another 74 yards.
“We felt like we could move the ball n them,” Meeks said. “They’re big and they’re physical, but we felt like we had a pretty good scheme to move the ball on them and we decided to execute it. Take away the turnovers, I think we’re playing next week. But, that’s the way it is.”
Added Hickman: “We could do whatever we wanted pretty much. But we were playing catch-up the whole night, so it was hard.”
Senior linebacker Luke Standish led the Bombers with 13 tackles, including five solos, and a tackle for loss.
The game was the final one in a Bomber uniform for Rensselaer’s 12 seniors, who went unbeaten in middle school and contributed to three winning football teams over the past four years.
“Great group of seniors. They are the leaders, and they showed great leadership tonight,” Meeks said. “They weren’t going to stop until the final buzzer went off.”
Stumbling out of the block created chaos early for the Bombers.
“Those last 45 minutes showed who we were,” Hickman said. “We could have quit after they scored those first two, but we didn’t. We fought and fought for four years.”