Once again, the finish of this installment of one of the most beloved football rivalries in America was every ounce of what it deserved to be.
Brookfield defeated Marceline in the Bell Game, 14-7 at Burlington Field, to possess the Bell for the first time since 2015, with the grand finale coming in breathtaking fashion.
With 1.3 seconds remaining, Marceline senior quarterback Alex McCauslin heaved a Hail Mary with no open target from his own 32-yard line. Brookfield's Gabe Rodriguez batted the ball into the air at the Bulldogs' 28, right into the hands of Marceline sophomore Sam Gillman.
Gillman, with a full head of steam, was brought down at the four-yard line as Garrett Starlin, responsible for an interception in the first half, had the wherewithal to hunt the ball and chase Gillman down.
"I'm on cloud nine," third-year Brookfield head coach Scott Stevens said following his first Bell Game victory. "Never, at any level, have I felt this way after a football game. I'm so proud of these guys, and they have fought so hard.
"This has to be one of the best endings of any football game at the high school level. No one on either sideline will ever forget it. This is one that will be in the books forever."
The game began with a 10-minute Bulldog drive that resulted in nothing. After acquiring six first downs, Brookfield was shut down on fourth and two at the Marceline five-yard line. Fittingly enough, the first play from scrimmage was an 18-yard scamper by junior Trace Alexander.
Alexander carried the rock 40 times for 177 yards on Friday night. Brookfield signal-caller Carsen Beckman passed the football just twice, completing both, for 13 yards.
The Bulldogs opened scoring with a 60-yard punt return from junior Gabe Rodriguez with 7:45 remaining in the second quarter. For weeks, both teams knew that special teams would play a major role in Friday night's game. Last season, Brookfield scored the only touchdown of the game in a 9-6 loss on the back of three Cullen Bruner field goals for Marceline.
The Tigers never had a chance to unveil the field goal unit on Friday night, and its three turnovers proved to be costly in that department, including a 20-yard Bruner rush that ended in a touchback with a fumble into the endzone in the third quarter. McCauslin threw a pair of picks in the first half.
Brookfield had just one turnover: a muffed punt in the second quarter by Starlin. After that, he spent the rest of the night absolving himself. He picked off a McCauslin pass on a high-IQ read on the following series.
Alexander picked off a ball on a poor McCauslin decision that led to Brookfield getting its second score. Alexander gave the Bulldogs possession at the Marceline 28-yard line, and he capped off the drive with both a four-yard touchdown and two-point conversion.
With the Bulldogs up by two scores for the second time in any game in three seasons, the lid blew off of Burlington Field.
Rodriguez expressed that the first half of Friday's game was tantamount to his team winning.
"It's thrilling, really," Rodriguez said. "Both teams wanted it badly, but we wanted it more in the first half. We did our assignments, and it was back-and-forth in forcing each other to punt and get three-and-outs. Nobody stopped for either team, we only had one real brain-fart, and we know that we've been close to clicking. Tonight was the click."
The mental error Rodriguez referenced was Marceline's only score. In the the second quarter, with the score 14-0 on a third-and-five play, the Bulldogs abandoned top coverage and left Gillman wide open down the right sideline for a walk-in, 58-yard score.
There was no Bulldog within 15 yards of him when McCauslin's pass was thrown.
"That's something that we've been practicing since week one, but it's not like it's something that we had in the game plan," Marceline coach Mark Ross said. "We had no way to know that the (Brookfield secondary) would crash. It's not something we had on the list, it just worked out.
"Unfortunately, we just came up a few yards short of tying a game, literally. We knew that the team that made most mistakes would lose, and unfortunately, that was us. We've got to get better, we blew some assignments and allignments, and we didn't get a chance to let (Marceline running back Cullen Bruner) get into space. They got us. It doesn't feel minor, but this is kind of a minor thing in the grand scheme of things. We'll show up ready to work. Frustrating, yes, but it's on to the next one."
Bruner was bottled up on Friday night. He carried the ball 17 times for 57 yards, and was responsible for the controversial fumble into the endzone that won't soon be forgotten by either side.
Marceline's final possession was set up by some clever clock management on Ross' behalf. With three minutes remaining, Brookfield shot itself in the foot to set up a first-and-26 situation from the Marceline 38. Three Alexander rushes and a Beckman keeper left the 'Dogs a full yard short at the Marceline 13-yard line.
With no timeouts and the fans in a state of unmitigated shangri-la, the Tigers got the football back with 40 seconds. Tiger sophomore receiver Will Heller was targeted a pair of times down the left sideline, but was unable to gain much ground.
One of those plays included a hook-and-lateral attempt that went nowhere.
All seemed lost for the Black Rage before something that will certainly be referred to as the greatest near-miss in the history of the Bell Game.
Stevens said that, even had the game gone to overtime, he thought that his unit was capable of winning a game that became strictly first-and-10 from the 25-yard line, even without being able to effectively kick field goals.
He believes that his team proved it to everyone, including his own players. On that first, 10-minute drive of the game, even though the Bulldogs walked away without points, they could sustain offensive possessions.
"We talked about that, and that's who we are offensively," Stevens said. "We knew we'd need drives like that to keep the ball out of (Bruner's) hands. That's one that we want to punch in, but at the same time, if you look back on it, that was a success. All of our guys up front, hats off to them. These kids blocked their (tails) off tonight.
"I've told you for weeks that we're a dangerous football team. I don't care if it's offense, defense, or special teams, this team is going to be hard for people to stop once we click."
Brookfield travels to Lexington next week, and Marceline hosts Fayette. The Tigers' only regular-season loss in 2018 was to the Falcons on the road. Brookfield is 1-2, and Marceline is 2-1.
The Bell Game series now sits at 43-39-1 in Brookfield's favor, although the two schools have met a number of times in the past 110 years for regular-season games outside of the Bell series. Records are shaky on which school has the all-time lead.