Late touchdown sparks 17-14 Rockford win in clash of unbeatens
For the second time this season Mother Nature extended a Rockford football game until well into the evening at Carlson-Munger Stadium in Rockford on Friday, October 8. This time the one-hour and forty-five-minute delay came at the start of the game as opposed to the season opener being delayed for 90-minutes midway through the contest. But the lightning visible on the horizon did nothing to disperse anyone in the huge throng that assembled to watch a showdown between 6-0 Rockford and 6-0 Caledonia.
It took a 24-yard touchdown pass from Zak Ahern to Mac VandenHout with only 5:09 remaining in the contest to give the Rams a 17-14 lead (that they were able to maintain) and emerge victorious over a speedy and talented Caledonia Fighting Scot contingent. With the win the Rams raised their overall record to 7-0 on the season and 5-0 in OK Red play. Caledonia falls to 6-1 overall and 4-1 in the conference. The Rams entered the game ranked first in the state in Division 1 while Caledonia was pegged as the third-best team in several polls in Division 2.
Defense was the rule of the day for both teams as offense was at a premium and points proved very hard to come by. Rockford gained only 249 yards in total offense while Caledonia was limited to 239 yards. A week after ringing up over 500 yards of offense against Jenison, Ahern was forced to fight tooth and nail for every inch against a staunch Caledonia defense. Ahern was able to run for 100 yards but it took him 24 carries to reach that mark. He was also 11-21 passing for an additional 97 yards and the huge late TD pass.
“Caledonia is a great football team and that was a great high school game,” said Rockford Coach Brent Cummings. “There is a reason that both of these teams were 6-0 coming into tonight and I think every player on both teams left everything they had out on that field. I thought our coaches had a terrific plan defensively and our kids executed that plan all night long. As for the late TD pass, Zak (Ahern) is a great player who puts in a lot of work and expects a lot out of himself. Our defense gave us a chance to make a special play and we were able to execute it and come out with the win.”
Rockford received the opening kickoff and wasted no time denting the scoring column. The Rams used 14 plays to march 80 yards to take an early 7-0 lead. Ahern did the honors for the Rams as he started right on a designed run from the Caledonia 8-yard line. He then cut back sharply to the left to reach the end zone at the 5:49 mark of the opening quarter. Jackson Burkholder booted the first of his two successful PATs to stretch the lead by a single point.
The Rockford defense forced a quick three and out and it looked like the Rams would expand their lead following a 37-yard punt return from Alex McLean that set them up at the Caledonia 23. But one of the big hurdles that the Rams inflicted on themselves all night long proved too much to overcome for the Rams. A holding penalty on Rockford negated a 14-yard TD run from Ahern that would have stretched the lead to two scores and the end result was a missed 33-yard field goal that kept it a 7-0 game. Rockford had five holding penalties on the night that seemed to always come at very inopportune times and keep the Rams from adding to their lead. Rockford had an uncharacteristic nine penalties for 85 yards on the night.
The Rams did increase the lead to 10-0 in the second quarter on a 32-yard field goal from Burkholder with 5:30 left in the first half. That drive was also sidetracked by a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Rams that they were able to overcome. The drive took 12 plays and covered 53 yards.
Caledonia took over at their own 20 following the kickoff and scored their only points of the opening half on the ensuing drive. The drive was aided by a controversial call when a Caledonia receiver was ruled not down on a hit and scrambled for an 11-yard gain that gave them a first down at the Rockford 47. The argument that ensued from the Rockford coaching staff resulted in another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gave the Fighting Scots an additional 15 yards. The next play was a 32-yard TD pass from Mason McKenzie to Brock Townsend that made it a 10-7 game with 3:03 left in the half. That was it for scoring in the first half for both teams.
Caledonia took the lead on their second possession of the second half. After keeping McKenzie under check all night long he finally busted off a long run against the Ram defense. Bursting up the middle from his own 42, McKenzie sped down the left sideline before finally being tripped up at the Rockford 3-yard line on a lunging desperation tackle. Two plays later McKenzie connected with Justice Reed on a two-yard scoring pass that made it a 14-10 Caledonia lead.
Rockford got into Caledonia territory on three occasions following that point but always managed to come up empty and unable to retake the lead. That set the stage for the defensive play of the game from Ram senior defensive lineman Andrew Griffin. Caledonia had taken possession at their own 22 with just over six minutes remaining in the game. On the first snap, Griffin sprang into the Fighting Scot backfield and managed to swallow up both McKenzie and Townsend simultaneously before somehow forcing a fumble that he was able to recover at the Scot 18.
“We moved Andrew b(Griffin) form middle linebacker to the line after Kade Kostus got hurt last week,” said Rockford Defensive Coordinator Randy VanderVeen. “It took him all of about one second to agree to it to give us some needed depth on the line. That was a huge play by that young man.”
Despite being hit by yet another holding penalty, this time the Rams would not be denied. Facing a third down and 16 from the Caledonia 24 Ahern made the biggest play of the game. Dropping back after receiving the snap Ahern patiently scanned the field looking for an open receiver. After what seemed an interminable amount of time, he spotted Mac VandenHout wide open over the middle deep in the end zone and fired a strike just over the hand of a Caledonia defender. VandenHout cradled the pass into his hands and Rockford had a 17-14 lead with 5:09 left in the game.
Caledonia took over at their own 20 at that point and somehow converted a fourth down and 13 play before facing another fourth down and eight play at the Rockford 43. This time McKenzie faded back and fired a deep pass over the middle that Tyler Vroman batted aside to effectively seal the 17-14 Rockford win. Despite not catching a single pass offensively, Vroman was able to contribute in a big way defensively for Rockford on the other side of the field. Vroman and Ahern are seldom used defensively for Rockford unless they are critically needed.
“That (Vroman and Ahern) is a special package that we rarely use defensively,” said VanderVeen. “Both of them have great height and athleticism and it was just a great effort by Vroman to bat that pass down.”
Rockford had a trio of defenders with seven tackles to pace that side of the ball in Rick Beison, Colby Weston and Sam Watts. VandenHout had seven catches for 61 yards to pace the receiving corps and also ran for 38 yards on three carries. McLean added three receptions for 27 yards before leaving the game with an injury.
“Our defense came through for us all night long,” said Cummings. “I felt our defensive line was phenomenal and our linebackers were really good all game long as well. And besides a play or two where they broke off a big play the play of our secondary was exemplary as well. We have a couple of things we need to clean up this week but it was another great win against a really talented OK Red team.”
The Rams will return to Carlson-Munger Stadium next week Friday, October 15 at 7:00 P.M. for the final time in the regular season as they look to stay perfect on the season. A winless West Ottawa squad will provide the opposition for the final regular season home game for a large group of Rockford seniors.