In the first 14 minutes of their game with Salem Friday, Effingham put up nine points and moved the ball effectively to take a 9-0 lead.
Those nine points were it, but they were enough, as Effingham held off a surging Salem team in the second half and took home a 9-6 Homecoming win.
While the offense hit a wall in the second half, the defense kept Effingham alive, holding Salem to just six points in three red zone trips for the Wildcats.
"The defense won us the game tonight," said Effingham coach Mike McDonald. "We bent, but we really didn't break. Our defense played great tonight ... they were on the field too long."
Still, Salem had its chances late in the game, facing key fourth downs twice in the final eight minutes. They went for both, once at the Effingham 16 and once at the Effingham 31, but came away with nothing.
The win pushes Effingham to a 2-3 record, and they lead the Apollo Conference with a 2-0 mark, tied with the Mattoon Green Wave.
"It's a good place to be right now," McDonald said. "It's the only thing we could do and take with us after those first three ballgames. We need to take care of business in the Apollo."
Effingham got on the board late in the first quarter, as Dylan Wolff orchestrated a quick drive down the field, ending in an 11-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Robinson. He was 4-for-4 on the drive for 54 yards and Effingham went up 6-0.
Salem went three and out, and Wolff hit back-to-back passes to Matt Wohltman and Robinson to bring Effingham to the Salem seven-yard-line as the second quarter began.
The drive stalled, and Michael Carie hit a 21-yard field goal to make it 9-0.
Effingham fumbled away its next drive, were stopped on fourth down and then threw a pick to end the the second quarter.
The offensive struggles were a sign of things to come.
The Hearts got a quick stop to start the third and were driving down the field when a reverse play from Wolff to Zach Miller to Trent Barnhart was fumbled away, giving Salem possession after the Hearts had reached the Salem 26-yard-line.
"It kind of reverted back to the first couple games where turnovers and penalties hurt us," McDonald said.
The Wildcats received a gift from the Hearts on the next drive. They faced 4th-and-13 and punted it away, but Effingham was called for holding. Salem lined up to go for it on 4th-and-3, but the Hearts jumped offsides and gave Salem a first down.
Salem scored seven plays later on an eight-yard touchdown from Riley Martin to Nick Conklin, making it 9-6 after a failed two point conversion.
The Effingham offense continued to falter, punting the ball away on its next drive. Salem took it all the way to the Effingham 16, but Martin threw three straight incomplete passes. The Hearts advanced the ball to midfield in a five-minute drive, but the Wildcats had one last chance.
They stormed the ball down the field, beginning at their own 29 and got to the Effingham 33 in about one minute. But the defense held, allowing just a two yard screen pass over four plays. Robinson made a huge play, breaking up a pass near the end zone to preserve the win.
Wolff was 14-for-24 for 167 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Robinson caught four balls for 76 yards and a score, and Wohltman had five catches for 70 yards.
Zach Miller carried the ball 18 times for 64 yards, but the Hearts struggled to run the ball with any consistency as the passing game waned as the game went on.
"Our people up front are not getting the job done, we've got to figure out how to get better, or else people are just going to keep loading the box and bringing people," McDonald said.
Martin was 19-for-47 for 178 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The Wildcats rushed for just 67 yards on the night.
"We shut down their rushing game very well, and we forced them to throw the ball, which we wanted to," McDonald said. "They did a lot better job than I anticipated throwing the football."
Payton Bushue had nine tackles and a fumble recovery to lead the Hearts, Brandon Loy had eight of his own, Drew Vasquez had eight tackles and an interception, and Billy Arndt recovered a fumble of his own.
Effingham (2-3, 2-0) now heads to Paris next Friday and looks to keep the Apollo lead, beginning at 7 p.m.
Paris 0 0 0 6 6
Effingham 6 3 0 0 9
Rushing -- Salem: Moskal 10-34-0, McDaneld 5-27-0; Effingham: Miller 18-64-0
Passing -- Salem: Martin 19-47-178 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT; Effingham: Wolff 14-24-167 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Receiving -- Salem: Crain 7-63-0, Conklin 6-53-1; Effingham: Wohltman 5-70-0, Robinson 4-76-1