SAVANNAH, Mo. — Just one extra point would have allowed Lafayette some level of comfort in the final two minutes.
Not this Class 4 District 8 first-round matchup’s style.
Three missed second-half kicks Thursday night against Savannah made the Fighting Irish defend until the final 7 seconds. Junior Preston Martin’s second interception in as many possessions finally sealed sixth-seeded Lafayette’s 33-25 win at Savage Field.
Martin took a knee in the end zone with 7 seconds left, leaving the Irish to complete just one kneel-down play to close out their second win against the Savages in coach Paul Woolard’s seven-year tenure.
“This celebration is awesome,” said Martin, a junior defensive back. “We haven’t had the best record, but we showed out.”
Despite all the tense moments, Lafayette (6-4) didn’t trail in the second half against the No. 3 seed but needed some clutch plays to make quarterback Drew Cortez’s career-best performance stand up.
Savannah (7-3) closed to within 27-25 on quarterback Dalton Duane’s 1-yard touchdown sneak with 6:06 left. The Irish responded with a deep drive but came up short on a fourth-and-inches sneak at the Savages’ 20, giving Savannah a chance to go ahead for the first time since the final minute of the second quarter.
Instead, Duane threw his second of three interceptions on the very next play, trying to hit running back Johnny Weeks deep between two safeties.
Martin snagged the hanging pass and returned it 50-plus yards to Savannah’s 4. Three plays later, Cortez rolled right to pass but cut back to scramble despite a gimpy right ankle that limited his play the past two weeks. He juked Savannah linebacker Lyle Powell in the backfield and then raced for the end zone, diving across the goal line just ahead of linebacker Hayden Holt’s tackle attempt.
“(The ankle) felt a lot better after I found out I got in the end zone,” said Cortez, who managed to run for a team-high 37 yards despite taking three sacks. “I just somehow got in the end zone. They blitzed all the backers, and I just found a seam on the backside.
“(The ankle) just held up for me tonight.”
But the third missed extra point on Savannah’s second block kept the Savages within one possession.
Duane, who finished with 123 yards passing and 52 more on the ground, engineered a drive that reached into Lafayette’s red zone. A botched snap that Duane covered up for a 3-yard loss and ensuing spike of the ball to stop the clock set up a third-and-13 play. Linebacker Koby Gillenwater knifed through for a sack resulting in an 11-yard loss.
Savannah rushed the final fourth-and-24 snap, which resulted in a lobbed pass to the end zone that Martin snared without much contest.
The win reversed the result of a 33-26 regular-season loss to Savannah, and the Irish advance to host seventh-seeded Excelsior Springs, which topped No. 2 Van Horn on Thursday, next week in the district semifinals. The Irish also assured themselves a fourth straight winning season despite losing four of their final six in the regular season and finishing fifth in the Midland Empire Conference.
“We talked about it being our time,” Woolard said, “in that we had to go through what we’ve gone through this year — some heartbreaking losses, some tough moments — to get to this point. And this was our time.”
Cortez connected on 22-of-38 passes for 294 yards, spreading those completions out between six receivers. Senior Tyler Burgess snared nine catches for 112 yards, but fellow senior Cody Massey nabbed three of Cortez’s four touchdown passes with four receptions for 56 yards.
Savannah played without top cornerback Jesse Dickens, out with a shoulder injury.
The senior’s absence forced Duane into a starting spot on defense upset of Clayton McGinness. Dickens limited Massey to just one catch in the first meeting, but the Savages often committed a safety over the top to limit the 6-foot-2 weapon’s play-making ability.
Savannah coach Chad Smith was unavailable for comment after the game, still busy addressing his players inside Savannah’s gymnasium.
Massey scored twice in the first half on passes of 7 and 26 yards, both answering Savannah scores. The second, which came on a fire-drill scramble from Cortez, put Lafayette up 15-11 at halftime following a 2-point conversion run for Burgess after a botched long snap. The Irish took the opening kick of the second half 72 yards, capped with a 15-yard scoring strike from Cortez to Massey.
Savannah’s 10-point deficit after the first missed PAT ended up the largest for the Savages, who steadily inched closer as the teams exchanged scores in the second half.
“We made it interesting,” Woolard said. “It shouldn’t have came down to what it came down to.”