Heidelberg coach Scott Donaldson knew it was not going to be easy.
Facing a steep increase in quality of opponent, the Student Princes led by 14 points on three different occasions, but that was not enough against Ohio Northern.
The Polar Bears came back to tie the game, but Jace Grossman ran in the winning touchdown with 34 seconds left.
Heidelberg fended off ONU one last time, topping the Polar Bears 42-35 in the Ohio Athletic Conference West division championship.
"The lead was never enough," Donaldson said. "That is a very good football team with an elite-level quarterback. No lead is big enough when you have that kind of talent. We knew it was going to be a 60-minute game. We knew that going into it. The kids knew. They knew they were going to have to fight even after 59 minutes."
The Student Princes improve to 4-0 and advance to next Friday's conference championship game at Mount Union (3-0).
"We are playing for a league championship," Donaldson said. "Just like I told the guys at the end, we are 4-0 and we have positioned ourselves for an OAC championship. The way this schedule works, that is what we had to do and we have done it so far."
With the game tied at 35, Heidelberg turned to a heavy dose of its running game to churn away yards - and more importantly, time. Montavious Yearby picked up 17 yards on the first play to get the Student Princes into ONU territory. The sophomore picked up three more first downs to keep the clock rolling as Heidelberg drove inside the Ohio Northern red zone.
Then, Grossman picked up just two yards across two carries as the Polar Bears used their final timeout with 1:12 left. But, Yearby again came through, this time a 10-yard rumble on 3rd-and-8 for new life. Grossman seized the opportunity and his three-yard touchdown and Branden Steckel's extra point pushed the Student Princes ahead 42-35 with 34 seconds left.
'We were just trying to score," Donaldson said. "At the very least, just try to score. That is an issue because our offense is so fast-paced. Trying to slow them down can be an issue. The offensive line did a great job of switching up the tempo to slow it down and eat some clock."
ONU had one last chance as Brody Hahn hit Jack DiMario for a 13-yard pickup before spiking the ball dead. Hahn was rushed by the Heidelberg defense on the ensuing play, finishing with a one-yard loss. With just seven seconds left, the Polar Bears went with a hook-and-lateral play, but could not keep the ball alive. Tyler Turek, a Seneca East graduate, intercepted a lateral to secure the win for Heidelberg.
"We just wanted to find a way to get them off the field," Donaldson said. "Luckily, the offense did an unbelievable job of clock management, reducing them to no timeouts. We knew they had to take one or two plays to try to get to the sideline."
The Student Princes forced a fumble on the first possession of the second half for Ohio Northern. C.J. Ferrante recovered the fumble and it took Heidelberg just two plays to cash as Yearby exploded for a 50-yard touchdown scamper in front of the Polar Bears' bench.
Leading 35-21, the Student Princes forced an ONU punt and drove down inside the Polar Bears' red zone before stalling out. Opting to go for it on 4th-and-4 at the 18, freshman quarterback Drew Sims was pressured and sacked.
Ohio Northern cashed in as Hahn led the Polar Bears down the field, completing passes of 23, 15, and 31 yards to attack the Heidelberg defense. He then kept it for a one-yard score and with 2:27 left in the third quarter, ONU was within 35-28.
The Student Princes again put together a nice offensive drive, drawing 1st-and-10 at the ONU 14-yard line, but two incomplete passes and a personal foul against Heidelberg set up Steckel for a 42-yard field goal. His try was blocked, giving the Polar Bears an opportunity to try to tie the game.
Ohio Northern used a big defensive holding penalty on the Student Princes on fourth down to move the chains. The Polar Bears had 2nd-and-goal at the 2, but Hahn was stuffed on a carry and two incompletions ended the drive.
On the next drive, Heidelberg drew the first penalty of the night against ONU to get out of the shadow of its end zone, but Sims was intercepted by A.J. Marks with 5:29 left in regulation. Three plays later, Hahn tossed a 53-yard score to Austin Eick to tie the game at 35.
The Student Princes were playing at home for the first time since sophomore linebacker Curtis Helman was killed in an ATV accident two weeks ago.
"The last week, I still feel like I'm cried out," Donaldson said. "Every game from here on own is going to be emotional because the kids and I were so close to Curtis. He would have been proud because we fought for 60 straight minutes."
The teams played evenly for most of the first half. Heidelberg took its opening possession and marched 67 yards in 13 plays, capped by Branden Short's seven-yard TD score. Steckel's extra point gave the Student Princes a 7-0 lead less than four minutes in.
After Ohio Northern punted, Heidelberg continued its top-notch offensive start. Sims hit Brandon Reed on three straight plays to get into Polar Bear territory. Sims took a sack, but two plays later, bounced back and found Maceo Matthews in stride for a 43-yard score.
Ohio Northern got on the board to keep the game from being blown open. Hahn picked up first downs on a 31-yard pass to Ed Manning and a 18-yard completion to Noah Miller. Two plays later, Hahn rumbled in from two yards out to slice the margin to 14-7.
The Sims to Matthews connection heated up again just before the quarter ended. After Jarin Curtis scampered 11 yards for a first down, Matthews got a step on his defender and hauled in a 58-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 21-7 with 35 seconds left in the first quarter.
Early in the second quarter, the Student Princes looked to have Hahn and ONU stopped on 4th-and-6. Hahn eluded a plethora of defenders and a potential 25-yard sack to pick up 14 yards on a pass to Miller for a first down. The Polar Bears continued to grind away and Hahn scored for a second time - this one from four yards out.
Ohio Northern carried that momentum to its defense when it forced Heidelberg to punt. Steckel was on point with the kick, with the Polar Bears taking over at its own 1-yard line.
It did not matter to the Ohio Northern offense.
The Polar Bears picked up chunks of yards through the air as Hahn mixed his passes through a list of receivers. Gains of 12, 14, 17, 18, and 12 got ONU into striking distance and Hahn hit Eick for a 25-yard touchdown to knot the game at 21.
The Student Princes had the answer in the final three minutes of the half. Nick Cofer caught passes of 8, 9, and 12 yards before Dimitri Penick caught an eight-yard pass for a first down. Sims went back to Penick and he caught the 15-yard touchdown with 33 seconds left until halftime, giving Heidelberg a 28-21 advantage.
"This was the West division championship for a reason," Donaldson said. "It is two 3-0 teams and two very good football teams going at it. Our kids handled it extremely well. We do it every day in practice. Our offense has to go against our defense and our defense has to go against our offense every day."
Sims completed 21 of 32 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns while Yearby ran 27 times for 194 yards.
"At the end and that point of the game, everyone is so beat up and everyone is emotionally and physically exhausted," Donaldson said. "We had to find a way to make a play and win the game."
Hahn finished 29 of 41 for 463 yards. Brock Martin, also a Seneca East graduate, paced ONU with 21 carries for 63 yards.
"We need to get healthy," Donaldson said. "We are banged up. We have played some very physical football games and we are banged up. Our guys have faced Mount Union before. They are obviously extremely good. They are extremely good for a reason and that is because they have good football players and good coaching."