By Randy Gregory
In a game that Rockford pretty much had their way for the first 45 minutes at Thirlby Field in Traverse City on Friday, October 28th, the Rams overcame a frenetic finish to top the Traverse City West Titans 18-13. Rockford now stands at 6-4 on the season and will move on to face Hudsonville in the Division 1 District final this week in Hudsonville. As of the writing of this article the time has not been officially announced yet but it is expected to be played Friday night at 7:00 P.M. The Rams and the Eagles (7-3) met four weeks ago in the same venue and Rockford came out on top by the score of 13-7.
Rockford ran an incredible total of 26 plays inside the Titan 20-yard line over the course of the playoff opener and netted a grand total of 6 points on the evening for those efforts. The vast majority of the contest was played deep in the TC West half of the field as Rockford had five possessions inside the Titan 10 and came up empty over and over again. Had it been a normal evening the Rams would have trotted out their always reliable kicking contingent and booted multiple chip shot field goals and won going away. But in conjunction with the inability of the offense to finish drives the Rams also had multiple breakdowns in kick protection as they had a pair of extra points and a field goal blocked.
“I am pleased we have the opportunity to move ahead but that was close to the ugliest evening of football I have witnessed all year,” said Rockford coach Ralph Munger. “The scoreboard will almost always work itself out as to who controlled the game but you like to see your team exhibit growth and progress as the year moves along. We need to start using the skills we have been taught regularly and get better in a lot of areas to achieve what we are looking for.”
The Rams began the game with scores on their first two possessions and the game gave every indication that a rout was imminent. Rockford received the opening kickoff and on the second play from scrimmage they were on the board. Taking a hand off from his own 41 junior fullback Jaiden Friesen stutter-stepped and broke through the line untouched before crossing the goal line with a 59-yard touchdown run at the 11:35 mark of the opening quarter. As was mentioned earlier the extra point was blocked and it was a 6-0 Rockford lead just like that.
The Titans fumbled the ball on their third play from scrimmage and it was recovered by Ian Rodriguez at the Titan 34 to set the table for the next Ram points. The scoring play was a 14-yard pass from Chris Corey to Nate Bareno on a third and goal play at the 7:25 point of the opening stanza. It was 12-0 and the game appeared to be getting out of hand early for the Titans.
The Titans generated absolutely nothing for the majority of the contest especially on the ground. Multiple plays ended in the Titan backfield as waves of Rams repeatedly hit the backs before they ever got started. Meanwhile Rockford got the ball in plus field position on multiple occasions and had little problem moving deep into Titan territory. But they just kept coming up empty at every turn.
That thrust and parry continued for both teams until just inside the three minute mark of the final quarter. TC West continuously went with the one, two, three kick offense and showed absolutely no sign of shaking that tendency when they took over at their own 19 while still trailing by that same 12-0 score.
But as luck would have it the Titan quarterback fired up a deep pass while under a heavy rush towards a double covered receiver near midfield. Two Ram defensive backs were licking their chops in anticipation of intercepting the wounded duck as it descended towards them. But somehow the ball careened off of their hands into the arms of the receiver who was probably as stunned as the crowd was when he emerged from the pack and eventually crossed the goal line to make it a 12-6 game with 2:23 left in the game. That thrilled the Titan crowd as they suddenly found themselves in contention for a win in a game they had no business being in. The extra point hit the upright and the score stayed at 12-6 Rockford.
Having used up all three of their timeouts in order to get the ball back TC West had no option other than to try an onside kick in order to get the ball again and go for the improbable win. But the kick backfired in terrifying fashion for the Titans when Dylan Dams gathered the ball in at the Titan 49 while in a full sprint and didn’t stop until he reached the end zone with 2:18 to play. A try for two points went awry and the score stayed at 18-6 Rockford.
The lead and victory appeared to be safe for the Rams at that juncture but the officials then chose that point to toss a multitude of flags on the Rams in order to produce a drive that was almost entirely penalty yardage against Rockford. On four consecutive plays Rockford was flagged for a roughing the passer, a personal foul, pass interference, another pass interference and an unsportsmanlike conduct. That left the Titans with a first and goal at the Rockford one-yard line. It appeared after all of that the Rams had escaped as they recovered a fumble but the officials said the ball came out after the forward progress of the runner had been stopped.
The Titans then scored on the next play and added the extra point to make it an 18-13 game with only 35.5 seconds to play. Once again the onside kick was in order but the ball was kicked directly out of bounds and the Rams took possession and took a knee to run out the clock and claim the 18-13 victory.
Connor White led Rockford running backs with 99 yards on ten carries while Friesen chipped in with 86 on an identical number of attempts. Corey was 7 of 8 passing for 83 yards and the one touchdown. Eli Haddad had two receptions for 32 yards to pace the receiving corps. Kip Cushman also had a pair of catches for 29 yards with Friesen also reeling in two for 21 yards.
Austinn Klein led Ram defenders with nine tackles while Rodriguez and Cade Klimczak added seven apiece. Klimczak had a pair of sacks included in his total while Rodriguez also had the fumble recovery for the only turnover of the evening for either team.