If No. 2 Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward was trying to stake a claim to a national championship Saturday night, its narrow 35-28 victory over No. 42 Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne in the state's Division I final was an unorthodox way to do it.
The Eagles, whose rise up the RivalsHigh 100 rankings has been nothing short of meteoric, overcame a messy first half, a sluggish start to the third quarter and a missed extra-point in the fourth and a seemingly unstoppable player on the other sideline thanks to its greatest attribute: Overwhelming perseverance.
That ... and senior quarterback Kevin Burke.
Down 28-27 with 2:28 to go in a game played with falling snow, Burke led St. Edward on a 60-yard scoring drive capped by a touchdown run by Terrell Bates to give the school its first state title in football in 61 years.
Will it be enough to overcome Batesville (Miss.) South Panola for the No. 1 ranking in the RivalsHigh Top 100? St. Edward head coach Rick Finotti wasn't afraid to say his team was worthy.
"Yeah, I think I can make a great case [that St. Edward is the best team in the nation]," he said. "This team is 15-0 in the best state in the United States. For these boys to play a 10-game schedule the way they have - then look at the state playoffs they had to go through. I don't think there's a team in the country that can claim what this team can."
Indeed. The title game was the final hurdle in a remarkable playoff gauntlet that saw them face four teams in the Top 50 in five weeks.
This game may have been the toughest of all.
St. Edward started the game flustered. It needed a pair of costly Wayne penalties to score its only touchdown of the first half and went into halftime tied 7-7 because of mistakes by Wayne. Then things got worse.
St. Edward's determination was challenged most in third quarter, when Wayne grabbed a 21-7 lead behind the explosive playmaking of Braxton Miller, the top dual-threat quarterback in the country.
But when all seemed lost, Burke brought his team back.
He started the comeback when he delivered a pinpoint pass to a wide open Patrick Barry Jr. on a 4th-and-3 play from the Wayne 10 to cut the lead to 21-14. The catch was just Barry's third of the playoffs and 10th of the entire season, but it provided a desperately needed spark.
On the very next snap, St. Edward's Avery Bailey - who is committed to play at Ball State next year - picked off a Miller pass to put his team in scoring position again. Two plays later, Bates broke a 15-yard run through a gap for his first big run of the night, tying the game with 1:32 left in the third period.
St. Edward seemingly took control of the game on its next possession when Burke used a 59-yard scramble to set up his own 6-yard TD run for a 27-21 lead. A holding penalty on the point after, however, created a 34-yard extra point that was missed.
Wayne took full advantage. It not only drove the field for a go-ahead score, it did it with a 15-play, 81-yard drive that ate up 7:12 off the clock. Wayne appeared to be in control.
Finotti, however, wasn't worried because he had Burke under center.
"I wouldn't trade Kevin for anyone," Finotti said. "The one thing Kevin did in leading this team, and leading this offense, he kept putting people on his back. He's been doing it all year. It was no surprise. I knew he was going to do it the whole time. We got the ball back, they scored. I said how much time is on the clock? 2:32? That's plenty of time for Kevin to get the ball and score for us. He has all the statistics to show he's the best quarterback in Ohio. He leads by example. He has a lot of energy. He has the heart of a lion. Tonight, there was no stopping Kevin Burke."
Burke, meanwhile, credited his own defense for the game-winning drive.
"We run the two-minute offense in practice all the time so we were ready," he said. "Once we stepped on that field we were going to score. We go against our defense in practice, which is the best in Ohio by far, and that gets us ready. I'm not surprised [we scored] at all."
The loss was bittersweet for Miller, an Ohio State commit.
He consistently eluded St. Edward's blitz, picked apart its vulnerable secondary - the Eagles were forced to choke up closer to the line of scrimmage to try and neutralize Miller and Wayne's short passing game - and generally torched a St. Edward defense for 264 total yards and all four of his team's touchdowns, two of which came on the ground.
Even the snow couldn't slow him.
"It's awesome," Miller said. "When I was little I always used to play Madden in the snow, and I'd play games in the Super Bowl, and I pictured when I get to high school I wanted to play in the same kind of atmosphere.
"We came out today with the hype, the weather was perfect, the crowd was perfect. [The loss] hurts but it was a good opportunity to make it this far."
How far St. Edward will go, remains to be seen.
Wayne coach Jay Minton appreciates how good St. Edward is.
"You're playing a 14-0 St. Ed's team that looks like the Green Bay Packers," Minton said. "At 21-7, we got in the huddle and said, 'We're going to have to keep going.' Momentum is the toughest thing to compete against at any level. It kind of got away from us for a little bit. Again, I thought we gave them our best shot right in the third quarter. I give them all the credit."