By RANDY GREGORY
A few familiar flaws reared their ugly heads for Rockford in a 33-28 loss to West Ottawa in the Michigan High School Athletic Association -Division 1 District finals at West Ottawa on Friday, November 3rd. Penalties and turnovers proved crucial as the Rams rallied from a 27-7 deficit late in the third quarter only to draw to within 27-21 before ultimately coming up just short to finish the season with a record of 7-4.
With the win the Panthers extended their season at least another week and now stand at 10-1. They will host Clarkston this week in the regional finals with a chance to advance to the state semifinals. Both of the meetings between Rockford and West Ottawa took place in Holland and both ended up with five-point victories for the Panthers including a 35-30 triumph several weeks prior.
“Defense ultimately wins championships and tonight we really struggled on that side of the ball,” said Rockford coach Ralph Munger. “We tended to have issues with teams that had been able to complete passes with regularity and tonight was no different. We came into the game tonight with the notion of being balanced offensively with the run and the pass and I think we were able to do that with a fair amount of success. But we just could not get over the hump or come up with the big stop when we needed it. We were a dinged up football team with injuries but that is no excuse and you have to give West Ottawa a lot of credit for the way they played too.”
The game began inauspiciously for the Rams as they fumbled the ball on their first snap and it was recovered by West Ottawa at the Ram 32. The Rockford defense turned that into one of the few key stops they had as the ball was eventually turned over on downs and the Rams took back possession at their own 18.
West Ottawa would not be denied on their next possession however. The Panthers started the drive at the Rockford 46 and marched all the way down to the Rockford one. Luck proved to be an ally for West Ottawa at that point however as the QB fumbled the ball while trying to reach the end zone. As luck would have it the ball bounced directly back into his hands in the end zone and it was a 7-0 lead for West Ottawa with 5:00 left in the opening quarter.
Rockford appeared to have an immediate reply as Jason Whittaker seemed to have hit a wide open Chase Novak for an equalizing 18-yard TD pass. But the other common malaise reared up for the Rams as a holding call nullified the score. The Rams would eventually come up just wide on a 35-yard field goal and the score remained 7-0.
West Ottawa quickly marched back downfield and appeared ready to extend the lead but Marcus Remtema stripped the ball from a Panther receiver and Alex Miller pounced on the fumble to give the ball back to the Rams. Whittaker would not be denied this time however as he fired an arcing deep pass down the right side to a streaking Eli Haddad who gathered it in at full speed and cruised into the end zone with a 49-yard touchdown pass. Eric Zeboor’s PAT knotted the game up at 7-7 at the 8:20 mark of the second quarter.
But just three plays later the Panthers retook the lead on a 31-yard TD pass of their own to make it a 14-7 game. And the next drive for the Panthers saw more of the same as West Ottawa scored on an 8-yard pass with 2:11 left in the half to make it a 21-7 game.
The Rams came up wide and short on a 49-yard field goal late in the second quarter and the half ended with the 21-7 score holding. Rarely has a Rockford team surrendered so many chunk plays in a whole game let alone a half and the Ram faithful were left pondering what the second half would bring and if it would lessen the Panther onslaught.
The second half began with the Ram defense standing much more firm. Another Rockford fumble gave the Panthers the ball at the Rockford 27 midway through the second quarter. But they denied the Panthers again following a turnover deep in their own territory. But West Ottawa scored again when for one of the few times during the contest they broke loose for a decent run as opposed to a constantly successful passing attack. This time it was a 55-yard burst that made it 27-7 game and appeared to signal that the night would end in utter futility for a Rockford team that entered the game playing their best football of the season.
The Rockford offense would not be denied for the balance of the contest as they finally showed the high powered attack that had been the norm the previous two weeks. The first Rockford score was a six-play 58-yard drive that ended on a 7-yard sweep to the right by Jack Richardson. Zeboor’s PAT made it 27-14 with 1:42 still remaining in the third quarter.
The suddenly energized Ram defense forced a rare three and out from the Panthers on the ensuing possession and Rockford took over at the Panther 44 early in the final quarter. This time it was a bit more methodical but the end result was the same as the Rams reached the end zone again. Eight plays later it was Richardson again doing the honors on a wrap draw with 9:15 to play and the large contingent of Rockford fans was screaming in unison for the team to complete the comeback.
The Rockford defense again seemed to have done the job of a quick three and out as they forced the Panthers into a fourth down and three at their own 37. Out trotted the punter and it appeared for all intents and purposes that the suddenly unstoppable Rockford offense would take possession in fairly decent territory. But a catastrophic roughing the punter penalty on Rockford kept the drive alive for West Ottawa. Facing a third down and 14 from the Rockford 29, West Ottawa struck again with another scoring pass to make it a 33-21 game as the two-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful.
There was only 4:10 left in the contest but the Rams refused to fold. Whittaker again led the team quickly down the field as they marched 75 yards in only seven plays with Richardson again doing the honors from 12 yards out. Richardson would not be denied as he broke two tackles in his determination to score. It was a 33-28 game with 1:52 left and the Rams had all three timeouts in hand.
But after forcing West Ottawa into a third down and 12 from their own 48 following an unsuccessful onside kick attempt from Rockford the passing attack of West Ottawa would again not be denied. This time it was a perfectly executed route to the sideline that was caught just beyond the first down marker that gave the Panthers a clinching first down. Three kneel downs later and the 33-28 final was official.
Rockford rushed the ball 27 times and passed the ball 27 times on the evening as a testament to what Munger stated as the game plan.
Richardson had 9 carries for 75 yards and a trio of touchdowns and Austin Klein added 23 on just four attempts. Whittaker was 15 of 27 passing for 219 yards and one TD. Jake McLean and Richardson had identical receiving totals of four catches for 47 yards each to pace the receiving corps. Novak had three receptions for 40 yards as well.
Khale Showers and Paul Reinke, the outstanding senior duo of linebackers, paced the Ram defense with 10 tackles apiece despite an overall difficult night on that side of the ball for Rockford.