by RANDY GREGORY
Rockford and Muskegon met on Friday, Sept. 7 at Ted Carlson Memorial Stadium in Rockford in an annual gridiron battle that has produced more than its share of thrilling contests. The game began in a deluge that featured torrential rain and blustery wind over the entirety of the first half. It concluded in more than favorable conditions in the second half as the rain ceased and the wind diminished to a large extent. When it was over, it was the Big Reds’ turn to celebrate as they topped Rockford 21-9 in a non-league contest. The Rams now stand at 1-2 on the young season and will conclude the out-of-conference portion of their schedule with a trip to Jenison on Friday, Sept. 14 at 7 p.m.
The game began with the return of starting Rockford quarterback Kyle Short and senior captain and safety KC Zenner. Both had missed the first two contests of the year and their return was timely with the unbeaten Big Reds up next on the docket. But Short battled difficult weather conditions and an injured ankle in the opening half before departing just before the halftime horn due to that injury. Zenner toughed his way through most of the game but was also clearly hobbled in his return from a knee injury.
“Kyle really tried to talk his way back into the game,” said Rockford coach Ralph Munger. “But we have to think of the rest of the season and he was clearly limping out there in the second quarter tonight. He is a tough kid and you really have to feel sorry for him with this popping up in his senior season. Kyle brings a certain skill set to the table and we tried to play to that, but he just wasn’t able to do the things we wanted to do due to his being hurt. He took a step back with the injury and now we just have to find ways to do things consistently with who we have available until he can return.”
Muskegon received the opening kickoff and took only three plays to score on a 49-yard counter to the left side that came with 10:21 to play in the opening quarter. The point after made it 7-0 but the Rams seemed to have an immediate retort as they quickly marched to the Big Red 8. But three plays later a 30-yard field goal attempt was pushed wide left into a howling wind that did no favors for the kicker.
The next score of the contest came on the first play of the second quarter. The five-yard burst and extra point made it a 14-0 Muskegon lead and came after another long run of 64 yards that got the ball to the Ram 16-yard line. Rockford kept threatening in the second stanza and got into Muskegon territory on every possession for the rest of the half. But they came up short every time before cashing in on special teams play. After forcing the Big Reds into a punt from their own 29, an errant snap skipped by the kicker and was eventually kicked out of bounds past the back line of the end zone for a safety that made it a 14-2 Muskegon lead.
The second half began very inauspiciously for the Rams as a fumble set the Big Reds up at the Rockford 35. One play later it was a 20-2 lead for Muskegon following a fullback dive up the middle that went untouched at the 11:16 mark of the third quarter. The resultant extra point made it 21-2 and the joyous Muskegon fans sensed blood in the water.
But once again the Rams refused to fold and quickly drove to the Muskegon 18 before misfiring on a fourth-down-and-one pass to turn the ball over on downs. The Big Reds got another long run of 67 yards to get to the Rockford two-yard line before fumbling the ball back to Rockford. The Rams finally put some offensive points on the board on a two-yard dive off left tackle from Connor Darby at the 5:50 mark of the fourth period. Casey Watters’ point after made it a 21-9 Muskegon lead and there was a renewed vigor coming from the Ram sideline.
The Rams pinned Muskegon deep on the following kickoff and forced them into a punt formation while facing a fourth-and-four from their own 12. The Ram faithful were frenetically cheering as surely the Rams would get the ball deep in Muskegon territory following a punt into a still substantial wind. The ball was snapped for the punt and the Rams got a huge push up the middle that looked most assuredly to be in the process of blocking the punt. But the Muskegon punter saw that he had no chance of getting the kickoff and instead took off for the right sideline and wasn’t tackled until 12 yards and a first down later. For all intents and purposes the game was over, though the Rams did get into Muskegon territory later before throwing an interception.
“That was a great heads-up play by their punter,” said Munger. “He saw he had no chance of getting that punt off and did what he had to do. On the reverse side, you think if only our contain man had done his job and forced him back inside, but it was just a huge effort from both teams that kind of took the wind out of our sails.”
Muskegon garnered 215 yards on the ground via the four big plays out of a total of 341 yards rushing. The Rams could only generate 25 yards on the ground but did throw for 190 yards. Austin McKellar was 5 of 13 passing for 95 yards, and Short was 4 of 13 for 57 yards. Chase Hankins came on late to go 2 for 4 for 38 yards in the air. Nick Simms hauled in four passes for 95 yards to lead the receiving corps. Sam Reinke and McKellar caught a pair of passes apiece for 20 and 33 yards respectively.
The linebackers had another big day on the stat page defensively. Inside linebackers Randy Garvin and Brent Showers had a hand in 13 and 12 tackles respectively. Outside backers Blake McDonald and Jeff Baldwin chipped in with nine and seven respectively. And despite his limited mobility, Zenner also contributed nine tackles to the Ram cause.