Trailing 26-10 with just over 12 minutes left in the game — thanks in large part to two third-quarter fumbles — it seemed that River Ridge (5-4, 4-0) would be heading home with a loss.
An 10-yard touchdown run by E.J. Ellis pulled the Knights to within 10, but they failed to convert the 2-point conversion, leaving it a two-possession game.
After forcing Pickens (5-4, 2-2) to turn the ball over on downs with 4 minutes remaining, a wild series of plays ensued, with the Knights somehow coming out on top.
It took River Ridge only a minute to find the end zone again, with Steven Spears and Austin Terrell connecting on a 53-yard touchdown pass to pull the Knights within four.
But Brock Harris’ point-after was blocked, and River Ridge was left needing a touchdown to win.
On the ensuing onside kick, River Ridge recovered the ball, but the celebration was quickly tempered when Terrell fumbled the ball away on the first play from scrimmage to seemingly seal the game for Pickens.
Yet, on the very next play, Pickens running back Shannon Brooks fumbled the ball right back to the Knights.
With 2:47 seconds remaining, River Ridge began to march down the field, with a horse-collar penalty by the Dragons speeding things along.
As the Knights entered the red zone, it took only two plays for Vince Njoku to cross the goal line to give the Knights a two-point lead with 1:18 remaining.
Harris’ extra point was blocked again, leaving Pickens the opportunity to win with a field goal.
But when it needed to the most, River Ridge’s defense stiffened on Pickens’ final drive, and a last-gasp pass by Dragons quarterback Tanner Brooks was intercepted in the end zone as time expired, giving the Knights the victory.
When asked if he felt this was the greatest victory in his time as River Ridge’s coach, Robert Braucht left little doubt.
“When you are pressured like this and have everything looking right at you in the eyes, you can go out there and fall flat on your face, or you can go out there and try to put things together and win the game,” he said. “That’s what our kids did.”
Leading the Knights on the ground was Njoku, who rushed for 85 yards on12 carries and scored a touchdown.
Steven Spears was 8-for-13 for 147 yards passing and two scores through the air. Terrell, who caught both of Spears’ touchdown throws, caught three passes for 87 yards.
Braucht was quick to praise this players for the victory and having the will to be a part of the program.
“There have been kids that have dipped on this program, because they never thought this moment would ever come, and they decided to go somewhere else,” Braucht said. “These players stuck together and wanted to build something here, and now they’ve done that.”
River Ridge trailed by more than 10 points twice in the game — in the first quarter, when it fell behind 10-0, and late in the third quarter, when Pickens went up 26-10.
Sixteen of the Dragons’ points came off of three River Ridge fumbles, with one coming on the kickoff at the beginning of the second half.
Despite the Knights’ mistakes, Braucht felt his team was able to win by maintaining their composure under pressure.
“I told them that, for this game, that, at no point, are we going to have to push the panic button,” Braucht said. “And they never did.”
Now, River Ridge will be faced with the lofty task of returning to Ridgeland — where it lost 42-8 on Sept. 14 — for next week’s region championship game.
The winner will secure a No. 1 seed for the state playoffs, with the loser settling for No. 2.