The Newton Eagles head to Beardstown in western Illinois Saturday for a state football playoff game.

It appears the Eagles face their greatest challenge for the season at the 1 p.m. kickoff time. The Beardstown Tigers are undefeated and won their conference. Newton’s opponent has been stingy on defense against different opponents and scored 40 or more points in several games this fall.

Newton finished the regular season with a 5-4 record to qualify for the IHSA playoffs. The team has had its ups and downs with heartbreaking losses to Paris and Flora. But the Eagles have showed character throughout this season and that was true Friday night with their thrilling victory over the Marshall Lions.

Newton led late in the fourth quarter 21-18 that night, but Marshall’s offense was driving down the field, reaching the Newton 25-yard line. Marshall quarterback Luke Cook, who had a great game with his talented receivers, then passed into the end zone. That’s when a Newton interception clinched the game with about a minute to play.

“Payton Birch, one-handed, gets the interception in the end zone to basically win it. What a great game,” said Newton coach Jason Fulton.

Cook had been successful through the air much of the night. Marshall’s lanky signal caller was 10 of 17 for 189 yards and three touchdowns. Lance Rees, the Lions’ 6-5 tight end, hauled in all the touchdowns for Marshall, including an impressive 79 yarder to the end zone in the first quarter and a 36-yard catch and run that put the Lions ahead 18 to 14 with 26 seconds left in the first half. But failing to convert on point-after attempts by kicking or from scrimmage for two points would haunt the Lions.

Fulton said Marshall was burning his defense early in the game with slant routes. Some adjustments with the linebackers started to take that part of the game away from Marshall. But another problem in the first half boiled down to the basics of defensive play.

“We just didn’t tackle very well in the first half. In the second half we did a much better job. I thought our D-line played phenomenal. We gave up more rushing yards than I thought we would give up. And Trent Hance just gutted it out. He’s still hurting. He was giving us everything he had, but he wasn’t the same player we had seen all season.”

Leading the Eagles in tackles was Marshall Tarr with four solos and three assists. Robby Koeble had two solo stops and three assists. RJ Lindemann had one solo and six assists and Blake Muska had seven assists.

The defensive secondary for Newton had some mismatches with the “tall timber” receiving corps of Marshall, Fulton noted with a chuckle. Along with Rees and his height advantage there was also Lion wide receiver Jesse Burdick with a 6-7 frame.

Newton ground out most of its yards, picking up 224 yards rushing. Adam Bridges, who led the Eagles in rushing with 92 yards, scored the first touchdown of the game late in the first quarter from five yards out. Rees scored his first touchdown a few minutes later, but the point-after-kick was missed. Newton led at that point 7-6.

In the second quarter, Stanley showed he could provide some razzle-dazzle through the air. He sent a pass lofting toward the corner of the end zone where Ben Meinhart pulled it in for a 29-yard touchdown. Fulton said having Jerald Eckl right by Meinhart was not in the playbook, but the score was still a pretty thing to watch.

There was also another surprising catch for the Eagles in the second half through a deflection that had Newton fans cheering. Eckl also had an impressive kickoff return of 52 yards, but a fumble from scrimmage would take away that momentum for the Eagles.

Fulton mentioned how different players stepped up on the offense, including Birch with some good runs and Jacob Stanley with his passes for 71 yards and runs totaling 47 plus the go-ahead touchdown from the 1-yard line with 4:41 to play in the game. That was set up by tough running by different players.

The Lions still has a slim chance after Birch’s interception with timeouts to get the ball back. Tough blocking and Stanley darting past a cluster of red jerseys gained 10 yards on second down to place the ball at the 32-yard line. That final first down for the Eagles secured the win and the cold but loyal Newton fans let out a loud cheer.

Fulton was glad his players stepped up when they did and came away with a tough win.

“I’m really happy for these kids. They can walk off and ‘Hey, we had a winning season,’” Fulton said. “They’re just a great group of young men. I’m so proud of them. We love each and every one of them.”

Now the question is whether the Eagles can keep their season going after Saturday.