Sometimes, the little plays decide football games. Sometimes, it's the big plays.
In the Effingham/Mattoon game Friday night, it was both. Key little plays cost Effingham early, and Mattoon broke it open late with four touchdowns longer than 60 yards in a 46-28 win over Effingham.
The Green Wave clinched the Apollo Conference with the win, and made Effingham's road to the playoffs much tougher as the Flaming Hearts now sit at 3-4, 3-1 in the Apollo Conference.
They face a suddenly-resurgent Mt. Zion squad Friday on the road, then must head to state-ranked Mahomet-Seymour for their finale in two weeks.
"Our playoffs start this week," said Effingham coach Mike McDonald. "We've got to go to Mt. Zion, which is always a tough place to go. Both of us are going to be in kind of the same situation."
The teams traded punts early in the game, but after Effingham's first drive, Mattoon's Payton Hartbank took a punt return 47 yards into the red zone, and Jacob Stephens carried the ball in for a four-yard touchdown to put Mattoon up 6-0.
On the Wave's next drive, they took the ball into the red zone and looked to attempt a 36-yard field goal on fourth-and-five. The Hearts jumped offside, giving Mattoon new life, and they'd score six plays later on a one-yard run by Stephens to make it 12-0.
The special teams errors cost Effingham early and would rear their head later as well.
"The bigger plays were in the first half, when we jumped offsides on a field goal attempt," McDonald said. "We made mistakes that way. Special teams hurt us tonight."
Effingham had a drive going into Mattoon territory, but the drive stalled at the Wave 27 and the Hearts turned it over on downs.
Seven plays later, quarterback Jared Pilson hit Travis Kittell for a 32-yard score as Kittell broke out of a tackle attempt late and put the Wave up 18-0.
Mattoon kept the pressure on Effingham near the half, blitzing Dylan Wolff relentlessly. After an Effingham punt, Pilson dumped a swing pass off to Stephens, who broke through the defense for a 69-yard score to give Mattoon a 25-0 halftime lead. Michael Carie missed a 36-yard field goal near the end of the second quarter.
The Mattoon offense, combined with the defensive pressure, was too much for Effingham early.
"It really hurt us with Khole (Moran) out. We did not adjust to where they were blitzing from and (Wolff) had guys in his face," McDonald said, "It was our inability to move the football, not making some catches."
Effingham showed a sign of life to open the second half, as Billy Arndt took the second play 53 yards up the middle for a touchdown, cutting it to 25-7.
But Mattoon took their first play 65 yards on a touchdown pass from Pilson to Malik Joyner, where Joyner took a curl route, broke a tackle and took it the distance. Effingham fumbled on its next drive, and Pilson made them pay with a 61-yard touchdown run of his own to push the lead to 39-7.
They kept trading touchdown, with Wolff hooking up with Marcus Robinson for a 48-yard touchdown with 6:17 remaining, but Hartbank took the ensuing kick 94 yards for a touchdown and kept the deficit the same at 46-14.
"The tackling bug-a-boo hurt us a few times," McDonald said. "Most of the plays they did score on, the long ones, were short passes or short plays and we didn't make plays on them."
The Flaming Hearts kept coming offensively in the fourth, scoring on a 26-yard pass to Robinson and a phenomenal, juggling 43-yard touchdown catch by Matt Wohltman on the sidelines. But it was too little, too late.
Pilson carried the ball 12 times for 71 yards and a score, while Stephens had 12 carries for 34 yards and four catches for 85 yards with three total touchdowns. Pilson was 13-for-22 passing for 277 yards and three touchdowns.
Wolff had a rough start, going 4-for-16 early, but finished the game with 145 yards passing with an 8-for-27 day, throwing two toucdowns. Zach Miller had 17 carries for 78 yards, Arndt carried twice for 58 yards and a score, while Robinson caught two touchdown passes for 74 yards and Wohltman caught four balls for 76 yards.
Travis Durbin led Effingham with 10 tackles, while Arndt and Brandon Loy each had seven. Trevor Murphy had three tackles and a fumble recovery.
Effingham's season is on the line next week at Mt. Zion, who is now 3-4 and 3-1 in the Apollo after a 58-30 win over Salem Friday night.
Mattoon 12 13 21 0 46
Effingham 0 0 14 14 28
Rushing — Mattoon: Pilson 12-71-1, Rice 7-66-0, Stephens 12-34-2; Effingham: Miller 17-78-0; Arndt 2-58-1; Wolff 12-39-0; Brooks 4-22-0
Passing — Mattoon: Pilson 13-22-277, 3 TD; Effingham: Wolff 8-27-145, 2 TD
Receiving — Mattoon: Stephens 4-85-1, Joyner 4-105-1, Kittell 1-32-1; Effingham: Wohltman 4-76-1; Robinson 2-74-2