By Randy Gregory
Rams outlast weather and Sterling Heights Stevenson to claim 44-30 shootout
Rockford kicked off the 2021 football season by hosting Sterling Heights Stevenson at the newly re-dedicated Carlson-Munger Stadium on Thursday, August 26. The game featured several twists including a lightning delay that lasted for approximately 90 minutes. The delay forced the game to conclude at about 11:00 P.M. before a crowd that had the facility bursting at the seams at kickoff but greatly reduced by the time the final horn sounded. Rockford appeared poised to run the Titans out of the stadium as they jumped out to an early 23-7 lead before mother nature reared her head at the 3:04 mark of the second quarter and force the lengthy stoppage.
After the weather passed, the momentum swung the other way and it was an offensive clinic for both squads for nearly the balance of the contest. But in the end, it was Rockford who featured a bit more firepower and eventually registered a 44-30 triumph. Both teams put points on the board in every quarter except for the Titans in the final stanza. The Ram defense put the clamps on a potent Titan attack in the final twelve minutes and that proved essential as Rockford posted a final touchdown in the last minute to give themselves some breathing room.
“We knew coming into the game that they were a very good team,” said Rockford coach Brent Cummings. “We are not in the business of predicting how a game will play out but we did not anticipate this high scoring of a contest. I was very happy with the play of our offensive line tonight. We had no returning starters and it is a fresh group and it was nice to see them come together and perform as well as they did in their first game as a unit.”
The star of the night for Rockford was senior quarterback Zak Ahern. Ahern accounted for five of the six Rockford touchdowns on the night. He threw for a pair (15 and 20 yards) and ran for three more (16, 10 and 69 yards). The other Ram score was from Ahern’s sophomore brother Ryan as he scored from a yard out late in the third quarter. According to my unofficial stats Ahern was 17-22 passing for 168 yards and the two touchdowns and carried the ball 18 times for an additional 156 yards and the trio of rushing touchdowns. His rushing total was hurt by a pair of errant snaps that knocked 18 yards off of his total.
The game began with Rockford jumping out to a quick 16-0 lead. The first Ram possession began at the Rockford 40 following a fumble recovery for the Rams by senior defensive end Jack Lamancusa. The 60-yard drive was capped off by a 15-yard pass from Zak Ahern to Leo Vanderwiel. It was a quick slant that put the first points on the board at the 4:22 point of the first quarter. Jackson added the first of six consecutive extra points and it was 7-0 Rockford. The Rams wasted no time adding to that lead as Kade Kostus sacked the Titan running back in the end zone on the first play from scrimmage after the Ram score for a safety. That made it a 9-0 Rockford lead that they quickly added to following Alex McLean’s return of the subsequent free kick to the Titan 41. That drive was capped off by a 20-yard deep fade to Tyler Vroman on the left side for the score. And after the PAT it was a 16-0 Ram lead with 3:45 remaining the opening quarter. The crowd could have been forgiven if they felt the contest was going to turn into a rout.
But the Titans proved resilient and answered with a 15-yard TD run on a sweep to the right that made it a 16-7 contest with three seconds left in the opening quarter. But the seemingly unstoppable Ram offense had a quick retort when Zak Ahern swept left from 16 yards out to regain the 16-point Ram margin at the 6:50 mark of the second quarter.
The Titans received the subsequent kickoff and had marched to the Rockford 37 when the interminable lightning delay began for both teams. Stevenson used the lengthy hiatus to come up with a play that perplexed the Rams for nearly the balance of the contest. That play was a wildcat formation sweep to the right that eventually morphed into a direct snap to the quarterback sweep right that appeared to pick up yards nearly at will against a suddenly confused Ram defense. The Titans scored 16 points in the next 2:08 and knotted things up at 23-23 with only 56 seconds remaining in the first half.
“It was very frustrating to our defensive staff when they were able to continuously run that same basic play repeatedly and with success against us,” said Cummings. “That and the fact that they were able to seize the momentum coming out of the delay was very concerning to us. We knew we needed to come up with something to change the momentum and the fact that our offense continued to gain consistent yardage that culminated in our staying on top was crucial.”
Rockford received the second half kickoff and proceeded to do what they had done all night. Starting from their own 40, the Rams used eight plays to jump back on top 30 to 23. This time the drive was capped off by a ten-yard sweep to the right from Zak Ahern. Ahern’s marker made it 30-23 Rams with 8:40 left in the third period. But the Titans again had an answer as they used only six plays to cover 87 yards and make it a 30-30 game. That score came at the 6:56 mark of the third quarter. The crowd at that point could have been forgiven for thinking that whoever had the ball last would prevail in the unexpected track meet.
But those points would be the last of the night for the Titans as the Ram defense stared to crack down on the sweep to the right. The Rams again quickly retook the lead on an 11-play 65=yard touchdown. This time it was the younger Ahern brother (Ryan) who gave the Rams a 37-30 lead with a one-yard burst up the middle at the 2:45 point of the third quarter. Rockford then forced a quick three and out but failed to expand the lead and eventually turned the ball over on downs at the Titan 38. Stevenson used 13 plays to march all the way to the Ram 11 before coming up short on an incomplete pass on fourth down to give the ball back to Rockford with just under three minutes to play in the game.
The Rams appeared ready to immediately give the ball back until Zak Ahern came up with two crucial plays that finally cemented the win for the Rams. Facing a third down and nine from his own 12, Ahern first first sprinted for a first down that kept the clock moving for the Rams. Two plays later, he applied the finishing touches to the Rockford win as he took a simple dive up the middle before turning on the jets for a 69-yard score after cutting right and speeding past the entire Titan defensive contingent. With only 51 seconds left to play the score made it a 44-30 Ram lead and saw Stevenson finally capitulate.
“We did some good things tonight but we have plenty of things to work on before next week,” said Cummings. “But that was a very good win over an excellent team and definitely gave us some solid things to build on as well.”
The Rams will return to action at Carlson-Munger Stadium as they host neighborhood rival Cedar Springs on Thursday, September 2nd at 7:00 P.M.