Call it the fortunate fumble.
Call Wheaton Warrenville South the DuPage Valley Conference champions.
Somehow, some way, the Tigers escaped No. 8 Naperville Central on Friday night with a 27-20 victory to take the conference title and become playoff eligible.
It came down to a fumble, a perfect bounce, and Keishawn Watson being in the right place at the right time.
Tied at 20-20 with 58 seconds left to play, the Tigers appeared to be in trouble. Facing a third-and-13 on their own 3-yard line, overtime seemed to be their best option, but Jonathan Johnson (24 carries, 131 yards) broke through for a big first down rush before fumbling
The ball bounced off the turf and right into the hands of teammate Watson, who picked it up in stride and took it into the end zone for a touchdown.
“I was really fortunate,” Johnson said. “I was scared because I thought I lost the game for us, but Keishawn comes and picks it up and gets the touchdown. I couldn’t believe it. It was so shocking.”
Watson couldn’t believe it either.
“That was the luckiest play I’ve ever been a part of in my life,” he said. “The only thing on my end was getting the ball and putting it into the end zone. I was just there blocking the corner on my side and it just happened.”
Wheaton South (5-4, 4-1) may have caught a huge break to score the winner, but they never would’ve been in that position if not for Johnson’s big night rushing, a pair of field goals from Benjamin Flores and a strong defensive effort.
“I have to give credit to my defense, they kept battling,” Watson said. “Our offense, when we had the ball in the red zone, had to make plays and a shout out to our kicker who knocked down two crucial field goals.
Naperville Central (7-2, 4-1) jumped ahead to a 9-0 lead after one quarter on a 15-yard TD pass from Conor Joyce (11-for-19, 128 yards) to Emmanuel Rugamba and a 29-yard field goal from Connor Assalley.
The Tigers reclaimed the lead at 14-9 at halftime, getting a 4-yard TD run from Johnson on the first play of the second quarter and then a 5-yard TD on a reverse from Watson with just four seconds left in the half.
Kevin Clifford (17 carries, 110 yards) had a huge 77-yard TD run late in the third quarter to give the Redhawks a 17-14 lead, but Flores’ 24-yard field goal with 8:40 left in the fourth tied it up at 17-17.
The Redhawks fumbled away the ensuing kickoff and the Tigers turned it into another Flores field goal. Still, they were able to tie it with 1:15 left on Assalley’s 28-yard field goal.
“It’s a tough loss just because how it happened so fast at the end there,” Naperville Central coach Mike Stine said. “Give Wheaton Warrenville South credit. They made plays and they deserved it.”