By Randy Gregory
It wasn’t your classical one team owns the first half and the other owns the second half type of game. But it was a classic football game in every sense of the word as Rockford topped the West Ottawa Panthers for the second time this season 35-28 on Friday, November 2nd at Ted Carlson Memorial Stadium in Rockford. The Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 1 District title triumph sends the 9-2 Rams to Clarkston next week to face off with the top-ranked and undefeated (11-0) Wolves next Saturday at 1:00 P.M.
The number 14 was prevalent over the first three quarters as the Rams led 14-0 after one quarter, but the Panthers outscored Rockford 14-0 in both the second and third quarters to grab a commanding 28-14 lead heading into the final stanza. But that was merely a prelude to one of the most exciting quarters of football in Rockford’s nearly two decade run of football excellence.
Rockford scored two touchdowns (at the 6:43 and 2:12 mark) late and lined up to kick the tying extra point as the home fans roared in appreciation. But the kick sailed inches wide of the right upright and the packed visiting stands erupted with joy at an unexpected turn of events that they felt might end an eleven-game losing streak against the Rams and send them on to the next round.
But Rockford coach Ralph Munger had a feeling that the scoring wasn’t quite done for the night.
“I never thought the game was over,” said Munger. “It was disappointing to miss the kick for sure but we always feel we have a chance if there is still some time on the clock. Steve Dengler does a tremendous job with our special teams and we spend a lot of time preparing for every situation that might arise. Curran (Schoff) kicked a great onside kick and our recovery guys did a great job of jumping on it. From there it wasn’t a sure thing that we would score, but when (Connor) Darby turned the corner on that sweep he looked like a man possessed and he was determined to make a big play for our seniors. It was a thrilling game and we didn’t fold under pressure.”
The 45-yard scamper from Darby and resultant two-point conversion pass from
Kyle Short to Cody Garnsey gave the Rams a 35-28 lead that would not change as the Ram defense forced the ball to be turned over on downs for the exhilarating victory. The Rams 21-0 advantage in the final quarter was the only deviation in the 14-0 score each team had produced over the initial three quarters.
The game began as if the Rams would rout West Ottawa with devastating precision in both the ground and aerial attacks. The Rams got a pair of touchdowns from Sam Reinke from 28 and one-yards to quickly jump out to a 14-0 lead. But the Panthers refused to fold and unleashed a passing attack that stunned the Rams over the next 24 minutes and left them wondering what had happened to their staunch defense. The Panthers initial possession should have been an omen though it didn’t produce any points. On a third down and 16 play form the West Ottawa 14-yard line senior Panther quarterback Tyler VanTubbergen was nearly sacked on three different occasions in his own end zone for as safety. Somehow he escaped every time and launched a desperation heave that somehow found the mark for a 32-yard gain.
The Rams had multiple chances to extend their lead in the first half but a fumbled pitch and a holding penalty that nullified a first down sabotaged their efforts and set the Panthers up for a pair of touchdown passes that evened the score at the break in a game the Rams should have been solidly ahead. The third quarter was all West Ottawa however.
The Panther offense completely eschewed the rushing game save for an occasional quarterback draw or jet sweep and marched into the end zone on another pair of touchdown passes on their first two possessions of the third quarter. The Rams, on the other hand, could do nothing all of a sudden when they had the ball except for botch a snap when they got deep into Panther territory. It looked like the end was imminent as the Panthers lined up for a 34-yard field goal attempt that would give them a seemingly insurmountable 31-14 lead with nine minutes to play. But the kick sailed wide left and the comeback was on.
“I really thought we did a pretty good job of making VanTubbergen throw the ball on the run,” said Munger. “He is a pocket passer normally but he was almost unconcious tonight even when we got great pressure up the middle.”
After the missed field goal, Rockford quickly marched 80 yards and scored on a one-yard Darby plunge to make it 28-21 with still 6:43 to play. The Rams got the ball back with a defensive stand and could only get out to the 44-yard line before punting it back with just over four minutes to play.
The Panthers continued with their game long strategy of passing the ball and would pay dearly for the indiscretion at that point. VanTubbergen scrambled to his left and forced a pass into tight coverage. Ram senior cornerback Steven Bilski provided the tight coverage and his first career interception at the West Ottawa 27 with a diving effort.
Reinke notched his third touchdown of the evening with 2:12 to play and set the stage for the frenetic finish.
“I am extremely proud of how this group refused to yield and fought to the finish,” said Munger. “We still haven’t put together a complete game by any stretch of the imagination. When you get to the playoffs the competition gets tougher every week and you need to play better every week. We are thrilled to have made it to this point of the season and now we get another chance to put it all together.”