With the clock ticking down and the Maroons' defense looking unbeatable, Case Western knew it would need a big play.
They got exactly what they needed, with an 86-yard touchdown pass on fourth and 23 that sparked a 27-23 victory over Chicago Saturday in Cleveland.
"That's a heartbreaking loss," head coach Dick Maloney said. "That game was not evenly played. We should have won."
Over the course of the game, the Maroons (2-6, 0-3) had an interception return for a touchdown called back on penalties and lost two fumbles deep in Case territory. The two teams traded leads throughout the game, with Chicago holding a 17-7 advantage after third-year cornerback Pat Conway's interception return early in the fourth quarter.
The Spartans (5-5, 2-1) came back and took a 21-17 lead early with less than seven minutes to go, but the Maroons came back with a 17-yard touchdown reception by second-year wideout Micah Dawson from second-year quarterback Marc Zera to put the team in a great position with just more than three minutes left.
On the next drive, two Maroon sacks and a tackle for a one-yard loss pushed Case to the brink. First-year backup quarterback Robert Gavlak then amazingly found fourth-year wide receiver David Kallevig on the play, and Kallevig took the ball all the way down the field.
"Their guy went up for the ball, our guy went up for the ball, and their guy came down with it," Maloney said.
There were 33 points scored between the two teams in the final frame. The 20 allowed by the Maroons were seven more than their fourth-quarter total allowed all season.
"There was no particular difference. We didn't run any more plays; we weren't any more tired than usual. We just didn't do what we've done in the past late in the game," Maloney said.Before the Spartans' final score, the Maroons had held them to just 203 yards on offense. They were led defensively by fourth-year defensive back Brandon Halcott, who had four tackles-for-loss and pushed Case back 17 yards, and Conway, who had both of Chicago's interceptions and ran them back for 33 yards and a touchdown.
"It makes me cringe every time I look at that stat," Maloney said. "It makes us look worse than we were. The defense just had a great game, aside from three or four plays. We held their running game down a bit, the front seven did a great job. The secondary just got burned once or twice."
Aside from a quality defensive effort, the late loss also overshadowed the play of Dawson, who had 157 yards and two touchdowns on ten catches in the game. His highlight-reel play was a 61-yard reception that set up a Chicago third-quarter touchdown.
"We expected Micah to have a good season from the beginning. He's a good athlete, and a lot of receptions on our screen plays go his way. He's a big play guy, and he had a solid game for us Saturday," Maloney said.
Zera also made substantial contributions to the cause, going 21 for 36, with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The defeat broke the Maroons' seven-game winning streak against Case, and the loss in the team's league finale dropped them to last in the conference at 0-3. The Maroons hadn't gone winless in the conference since 1991.
"It's a very balanced conference this year. All the teams are tough, and all of the games have been highly competitive. You're not seeing anyone getting beat 49-7. If anyone's the weak sister, it's us, and our biggest defeat was only by ten points," Maloney said.
The team will close out the season this Saturday at Eureka College. The Red Devils have a 3-6 record, but nearly upset Illini-Badger Football Conference champion Concordia last weekend, falling 7-3. This will be the first ever meeting between the two teams. North Park was Chicago's only common opponent, with Eureka falling to the Vikings 14-7 September 18. The Maroons beat North Park 40-20 in their season opener.
"Not having a history against this team, it's hard to say what they're going to be able to do," Maloney said.
"It's their last game, so their seniors should be up for it. We just need to get physically and emotionally ready, and put this loss behind us."