By RANDY GREGORY
At halftime of the game between Rockford and West Ottawa on Friday, October 6th all was right in the world for the Ram faithful. Rockford led 23-7 and the large contingent of Panther faithful on homecoming night seemed almost resigned to yet another loss to Rockford. But the second half, and in particular the third quarter, saw a momentum shift nearly biblical in swiftness and totality that eventually doomed Rockford en route to a 35-30 Panther win.
The Rams fell to 4-3 overall with the defeat and stand at 3-1 in OK Red play. West Ottawa has rarely had as big a win in their football history as the triumph secured no worse than a share of the OK Red title at 5-0 and punched their ticket to the Michigan High School Athletic Association playoffs with their sixth win (6-1 overall). Rockford needs wins in each of the last two contests (East Kentwood and Hudsonville) to ensure their 23rd consecutive trip to the MHSAA playoffs.
“It was such an up and down game that I am not really sure how to put into words what happened tonight,” said Rockford coach Ralph Munger. “We had trouble executing same plays that are staples of our offense on a consistent basis and that hurt us.”
When asked if he had second thoughts after kicking off against the wind to begin the second half, Munger was unwavering in his assessment.
“We wanted the wind in the fourth quarter and I would do the same thing every time,” stated Munger. “They just made the plays on special teams that hurt us.”
The game began with both teams exchanging defensive scores in the opening quarter. West Ottawa struck first with a 27-yard interception return at the 4:04 mark and Taylor Green returned the favor for Rockford with a 28-yard fumble return with 24.1 seconds to play in the opening stanza. Eric Zeboor added the first of his four successful points after for the Rams to knot it up at 7-7.
The second quarter proved to be all Rockford as the Rams ran off 16 consecutive points to take a 23-7 lead into the locker room. Maliq Thompson got the parade of points started for Rockford as he busted loose for a 63-yard touchdown round at the 9:44 mark. Thompson broke an arm tackle just over the line of scrimmage before veering wide right to scoot untouched into the end zone and give Rockford a 14-7 lead. Green added to his defensive heroics when he was credited with a safety less than a minute later that gave Rockford a 16-7 lead. The onslaught continued late in the quarter when an errant snap on a punt attempt gave Rockford the ball at the Panther 3. Thomson capped off that short drive with two-yard dive at the 1:47 point and it was a 23-7 game at the half.
But the second half could not have been more different for both teams and it didn’t take long for the momentum to do a total reversal on it’s axis. The Panthers began by receiving the second half kickoff and promptly returning it to the house for a 97-yard TD. The suddenly revitalized Panther defense forced a quick three and out from the Rams and West Ottawa took over at their own 45. Four plays later it was a 23-21 Rockford lead after a 25-yard TD pass and the Panther team and fans were in a frenzy with 9:21 still to play in the third quarter.
Three plays later a short Ram punt gave West Ottawa the ball at the Rockford 46. 12 plays later the Panthers retook the lead on a strange one-yard score from the Ram one. Rockford had seemingly stacked up the Panther QB on the play to force a fourth down decision but he somehow spun out of the scrum and just crossed the goal line when the side judge ruled he wasn’t down by contact. It was a 28-23 West Ottawa lead with 2:47 still left in a stunning third quarter turn around.
But despite not scoring again in that stanza the onslaught still wasn’t complete. After forcing yet another three and out from a suddenly stagnant Ram offense the Panthers returned the ensuing punt to the Rockford 30. Rockford forced West Ottawa into a second down and 15 at the Rockford 22 early in the fourth quarter. But once again the Panthers had an answer as a blown coverage left a receiver wide open in the end zone for the 22-yard score with only 10:24 left in the contest.
Rockford finally got back on the board midway through the final quarter when Drew Bareno combined with Kip Cushman on a beautifully thrown and caught 63-yard TD pass that made it a 35-30 game with 5:51 left in the game. The Rams seemed to force a quick punt giving them a chance to retake the lead late but a mystifying defensive holding call on a ball thrown up for grabs on a third down and 13 play proved crucial in extending the possession and forcing the Rams to use all of their timeouts before getting the ball back at their own 16 with 2:44 to play.
The Rams succeeded in advancing the ball to the Panther 41 before a final desperation heave was picked off and sent the Panther faithful into a state of delirium while rushing the field.
Rockford out gained the Panthers 259 yards to 231 on the night but the return yardage for West Ottawa was overwhelming in helping to determine the final outcome. Thompson led Rockford on the ground with 131 yards on 20 carries. Bareno was 8 of 16 for 123 yards and a touchdown while also tossing a pair of interceptions. Four different receivers had two catches for Rockford. Cushman had two catches for 70 yards, Connor White had a pair for 20 yards, Logan Lee reeled in two receptions for 18 yards and Chase Novak also had a pair for 15.
Khale Showers again led the Rockford defense with 14 tackles while Paul Reinke chipped in with 8.