On a picturesque night at historic Hackley Stadium in Muskegon, a huge crowd settled in to watch two of the top teams in the state of Michigan prepare to open up the 2023 football season on Friday, August 26. The host Big Reds returned nine starters on both sides of the ball from a defending state runner-up squad while the Rams featured a roster of 101 players and a bevy of starters and contributors defensively from last season. But in a stunning display on both sides of the ball, Rockford raced out to a 27-0 lead with just under seven minutes left in the first half to eventually claim a thorough 27-7 victory.
Rockford continually stuffed the vaunted Muskegon ground game at every turn while establishing control of the line of scrimmage and racking up multiple tackles for loss that continuously frustrated the Big Reds. Offensively the Rams scored touchdowns on each of their first four possessions while utilizing big plays both running and passing the ball with equal aplomb. The stunned home crowd could do nothing but accept their fate as the Rockford defense continued their overwhelming play for the balance of the contest.
“I was really proud of our kids tonight and they brought it all night long defensively,” said Rockford defensive coordinator Randy VanderVeen. “There were a lot of younger players, as well as some seniors who were starting for the first time, really stepped it up against a very good Muskegon team. When you added in the efforts of our returning starters it was a pretty solid effort for an opener.”
Muskegon received the opening kickoff and was quickly forced to punt the ball to Rockford. The Rams took over at their own 26-yard line and wasted no time taking a lead they would never relinquish. Senior two-way standout Ryan Ahern took handoffs the first two plays and ripped off runs of 19 and 38 yards to give Rockford a first down at the Muskegon 17. Facing a third and seven from the Muskegon 14, senior quarterback Drake Irwin found junior tight end Blake Linsley for a 12-yard gain down to the Muskegon two-yard line. Two plays later, Irwin did the honors himself on a three-yard plunge over the left side and Rockford led 7-0 at the 7:22 mark of the opening quarter following the extra point.
While the Ram contingent was still savoring the quick score, Rockford quickly increased their lead after a Big Red turnover. After suffering a two-yard loss on their first play from scrimmage the Muskegon QB attempted a pass over the middle. Sophomore safety Luke Ahern deftly darted in front of the receiver and picked off the interception at the Muskegon 20 to set the Rams up in prime position to really take control of the contest. After an incomplete pass on the first play, Irwin raced up the middle on a run and was never headed on his way to a 20-yard score that made it 14-0 Rockford with 6:27 still to play in the first 12 minutes of the game.
To their credit the Big Reds were able to generate a bit of a drive on their ensuing possession that got them to the Rockford 25. although it was greatly fueled by a fortuitous bounce on a fumble that was advanced for a 23-yard gain. But in what became a theme of the contest, they grinded to a halt at that point and Rockford gradually forced a turnover on downs. Irwin connected with senior wide receiver Seth Anderson for a 14-yard pass but consecutive losses on the next two plays left Rockford staring at a third down and 24 from their own 30. Rather than opting for a conventional draw or other running play to gain field position at that juncture, Rockford struck gold on the next snap to establish firm control of the showdown. Irwin dropped back to pass and spotted senior wide receiver Cam Kruisenga on a mid-level crossing route and hit him in stride. Rather than accepting the 10-yard gain, Kruisenga turned on the jets and cut across the field to his left and outraced the entire Big Red secondary for a 70-yard TD on the opening play of the second quarter with 11:41 still to play in the opening half. That made it a 21-0 Ram lead.
The reeling Big Reds lost six yards on their next three plays and were forced to punt yet again. The punt was fielded in stride by junior safety Isaac Poot and he raced untouched for an apparent 51-yard touchdown return. But the euphoric Ram faithful quickly saw the flag on the field for an illegal blindside hit that negated the score and gave Rockford possession at the Big Red 46. But the Rams were unfazed and a 29-yard pass from Irwin to Anderson on the first play set Rockford up at the Muskegon 17. Five plays later it was Ryan Ahern who did the honors on a one-yard plunge to make it a 27-0 game with 6:47 left in the second quarter.
The second half saw Muskegon score on a bruising three-yard run with 1:08 to play in the third quarter to make it 27-7 and complete the scoring for the contest. Rockford lost a lot of the continuity they held offensively in the first half over a frustrating final 24 minutes but easily cruised to the big win and move their record to 1-0 on the season. But despite the TD, the Ram defense continued their dominant ways all night long and they were never seriously threatened. Even after a botched snap on their opening possession of the second half that gave Muskegon a first down at the Rockford 17 the Ram defense forced Muskegon backwards and into a turnover on downs that maintained the 27-0 lead at that point.
“The defense had a goal of starting the game (and the second half) with a three and out and they did exactly that said Rockford coach Brent Cummings. “Well, it did take four plays in the second half to force the turnover on downs. We have a great group of veteran defensive coaches and they do a great job week after week of teaching and preparing our team to be ready for whatever the opposition specializes in. The same could also be said for our offensive coaches. They also do a wonderful job of setting up a gameplan that gives us multiple opportunities to score.”
“We did struggle to get anything going consistently in the second half but a lot of that is a credit to Muskegon. They are a very good team with an excellent coaching staff and I know they will have a very good season moving forward. It was a solid performance for our kids in week one and we are excited to move on to next week and get better as a team.”
Rockford will make a return trip to the lakeshore next week for game number two. This time around it will be the Sailors of Muskegon Mona Shores providing the opposition. Mona Shores has won multiple state titles over the last five years and also features a veteran team with multiple returning starters and a great coaching staff. The contest will be played Friday, September 1 and kickoff is slated for 7:00 P.M.