Pirates crack ‘W’ columnMerrillville quarterback Jake Raspopovich runs for the endzone with teammate Ryan Neal in the first quarter against Crown Point at Crown Point High School. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 3, 2011 5:56PM
CROWN POINT — Jake Raspopovich was so confident that Merrillville was about to mount a game-winning scoring march on Friday night, he had already named it.
“I called it,” the Pirates quarterback said. “Before that last drive, I told my linemen, my receivers and running back, this right here, this is going to be The Drive.”
Yes, that’s with a capital “T” and a capital “D.”
Raspopovich engineered an 18-play, 80-yard drive late in the fourth quarter to lead Merrillville to a rollicking 21-20 victory over Duneland Conference rival Crown Point. Raspopovich completed five passes — including an all-important 14-yarder to Joey Cowser on fourth-and-12 with 1:30 to play — to set up Darryl Peppers’ 2-yard touchdown plunge with 1:18 to go in the game.
Matt Warren added the extra point — Crown Point’s Brett Bayer had missed his on the Bulldogs’ go-ahead touchdown with 5:25 to go — to seal the win, which prevented the Pirates from falling to 0-3 for the first time since 1975.
“We had to go down and execute, and that’s what we did,” said Raspopovich, who completed 25-of-41 passes for 258 yards and ran 20 times for 83 yards. “We didn’t have any more time to waste.”
And he meant it when he said “waste.” Despite utterly dominating the statsheet, Merrillville found itself trailing 21-14 midway through the fourth quarter. How much did Merrillville control the game? After three quarters, the Pirates had 20 first downs; the Bulldogs had five.
But big plays kept Crown Point (2-1, 0-1) in the game. The Bulldogs scored 30 seconds into the game on a 67-yard touchdown pass from Joe Hopman to Tyler Wells. Raspopovich scored on a 12-yard run and hit Kourtney Berry for a 16-yard TD pass to give the Pirates a 14-7 halftime lead, but the Bulldogs — despite barely touching the ball in the half — weren’t out of it by any stretch.
“We were lucky to be in the ballgame at the half,” CP coach Chip Pettit said.
Not just in it, but soon to be in control of it. Forty-six seconds into the second half, CP’s Billy Van Cleef sacked Raspopovich, forcing a fumble that was scooped up by Tyler Kral, who ran it in 12 yards for a stunning game-tying touchdown.
From there, Merrillville’s offense — while incredibly productive with short passes in the slot all night — kept stalling. A total of 12 penalties for 75 yards certainly didn’t help, but the Pirates had many chances to pull away.
After their first drive ended with the fumble, Raspopovich was picked off at midfield on a spectacular leaping grab of a bullet pass by defensive lineman Cameron Tanner. When CP fumbled it back at the Merrillville 15, Raspopovich marched the Pirates all the way to the CP 22 — only to get stuffed on a fumbled snap on fourth-and-2 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Crown Point — its offense stymied by negative plays and penalties of its own — finally found its offensive groove on the ensuing drive. Jake Lindeman — who had 21 yards and a fumble on eight carries through three quarters — carried eight times for 40 yards on the long scoring drive, which ended with a Hopman-to-Zach Plesac 4-yard touchdown.
Bayer’s extra point was no good, however, giving CP new life.
“We always have confidence, but when we were down by six and knew we could just score and get that extra point, it just gave us even more,” Raspopovich said.
And while Crown Point’s defense was bending all night, it couldn’t break Merrillville’s spirit, as Raspopovich led the drive — ahem, The Drive — that won the game, and salvaged what could have been a particularly frustrating loss.
“I had the turnovers, we had a lot of penalties — we were driving the ball down the field, but we weren’t scoring,” Raspopovich said. “But in the end, we came out and we executed when it really counted.”