O’FALLON, Mo. — Patrick Carlton’s mind was clear as he and his Carthage teammates set out on the most important drive in their program’s history.

The junior quarterback wasn’t focused on the 17-14 deficit on the scoreboard, nor the precious time that was dissipating with each snap of the football. He instead had tunnel vision. And the end zone positioned 80 yards away from his offensive unit was the light at the end.

“I tried to stay as calm as possible,” Carlton said. “So was my team. We had been waiting for this week and this (opportunity) for years.”

On a drive that began with 17 seconds remaining in the third quarter, No. 5 Carthage milked more than nine minutes off the clock as it marched 80 yards in 17 plays to deliver the final haymaker in a toe-to-toe heavyweight clash with No. 1 Fort Zumwalt North. Carlton, responsible for 54 yards on the drive, capped the possession with a one-yard touchdown run that lifted the Tigers to a 20-17 triumph in a Class 5 state semifinal at Fort Zumwalt North High School.

The victory clinched Carthage’s first state championship football berth in school history. The Tigers (11-2) travel to Columbia to compete for the Class 5 crown in a bout with Jackson, a 20-7 semifinal victor over Staley, on Saturday at 7 p.m.

“This has never been done in school history, and we just did it tonight,” Carlton said. “All we did throughout the week was say to ourselves to keep our composure and don’t let the moment get too big for us. That’s what we did. We came out and did what we’ve been doing all year.”

“We finally pushed through, and it couldn’t happen to a better group of kids right here,” Carthage head coach Jon Guidie said. “They stayed with it and believed in each other. At times tonight, we could have hung our heads … but we stayed in there and won the ballgame.”

Following Carlton’s go-ahead score with 2:53 remaining, the Carthage defense punctuated a gritty performance with a game-sealing stop. The Panthers (12-1), held to a season-low point total, only went backward on their final drive and ultimately turned the ball over on downs after four plays.

“Defensively, they were flying around to the ball, which we knew they would,” North coach Joe Bacon said. “They’re physical, and there’s no room for error when you play a defense like that. And it’s not that we were making a ton of mistakes, but a few plays we weren’t real sharp and a few plays they just outright beat us.”

Carthage faced a 10-7 deficit at halftime but came out of the break and went on a seven-play, 63-yard touchdown drive to go up 14-10 with 9:00 left in the third quarter. Carlton, who accounted for 91 rushing yards and all three of the Tigers’ touchdowns, bulldozed his way into the end zone on a 10-yard run.

North reclaimed the lead about eight minutes later when standout quarterback Cairo Payne reached paydirt on a 15-yard run.

“They scored right at the end of the third, and we said, ‘Guys, we’re going to put it on the backs of our offensive linemen, go 80 yards and score to go to the state title game,’ ” Guidie said.

And they did.

Carthage amassed 219 yards of offense and was led by senior running back Tyler Mueller, who registered 101 yards on 20 carries.

The Panthers totaled 234 yards of offense — 230 via the run — and was paced by Payne’s 103 yards on 20 carries. North turned the ball over on downs four times in Carthage territory.

“That’s a tough offense to defend,” Guidie said of North. “It really is. They have a lot of good playmakers over there with a lot of speed, a lot of talent. (The fourth down stops) were absolutely critical. So I’m very proud of our guys.”

The Tigers drew first blood on their first drive, marching 72 yards in 12 plays and scoring on a 10-yard run by Carlton.

Carthage suffered back-to-back three-and-outs to close the first half as FZN scored 10 unanswered points. The Panthers, after turning the ball over on downs on their first two possessions, eventually found their offensive footing and used a nine-play, 58-yard touchdown drive to tie the game at 7 with two minutes remaining in the second quarter.

North took its first lead on a 46-yard field goal by senior Owen Sears with just two seconds remaining in the first half. The scoring drive was set up by a 10-yard Carthage punt that gave the Panthers their best starting field position of the day at the Carthage 30-yard line.

“(Sears) has been great for us all year, and we don’t kick many field goals,” Bacon said. “That could have been a turning point in the game. It was a turning point, but obviously it wasn’t the last one.”

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