The Byron and Monticello 3A state title football game between undefeated No. 1 seeds was exactly as advertised.
In the end, it was defensive stops by the Sages making the difference in a 24-20 win on Nov. 23 in Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois in Champaign.
“It was a clash of styles and they won,” Byron coach Jeff Boyer said. “We didn’t finish and that cost us.”
Four times, the Monticello defense did something no one else has much success - make fourth down stops against the powerful Byron offense.
“The critical times, we made the plays,” Monticello coach Cully Welter said.
Monticello came back from a 14-10 second half deficit to win its first-ever state title and also avenge a 21-20 playoff lost last year to Byron.
“It’s amazing to beat our rival,” receiver Asher Bradd said. “I’d rather lose to them last year and win when it counted most this time.”
Byron had the edge early, moving into the red zone twice in the first half. However, they came up empty-handed both times.
After an 11-play drive, a fourth-down pass from Ben Carlson to Drake Snodgrass was initially caught in the end zone, but ruled incomplete as he lost possession.
“I thought I had it, but they knocked it loose,” Snodgrass said.
After a 3-and-out, Byron went on another potential scoring drive and faced a fourth-and-goal at the 2. Fullback Ricky Messling was stopped for no gain.
“Those fourth-down stops were killers,” Snodgrass said.
Still, Byron looked to be in good shape after Blake Eder had a 9-yard sack on all-state QB Braden Snyder.
But, Snyder came right back and hit Alek Bundy with a screen pass at the 5-yard line. Bundy was sprung free by a crunching block and another downfield block by Bradd to go 95 yards for a touchdown and 7-0 Sages lead. That was a 3A title game record for longest touchdown and turned the game around for Monticello.
“In the first half, I thought our defense played great except for one play,” Boyer said.
Linebacker Kevin Claunch, who saved the game last year with Monticello, led the defense with seven tackles and Colton Ingram had six.
The run-happy Tigers then went to the air to set up their first score. Ben Carlson found Zak Alberts for a 29-yard pass. Then Snodgrass knocked off a 19-yard run. An Isaac Stickler 14-yard touchdown run capped off the 6-play, 83-yard drive, reminiscent of many Tiger scoring possessions.
With the score tied 7-7, a 45-pass from Snyder to Bradd gave the Sages a first-and-goal. Claunch forced a field goal with a tackle for a loss on a reverse.
Luke Rudolph kicked a 28-yard field goal that clanked off the upright and straight down for a 10-7 Sages halftime lead. It was the first time all year Byron trailed at half and the fortuitous bounce the field goal took was another break that Monticello seem to get.
“We stalled on drives. That can’t happen,” Boyer said. “That and too many mistakes cost us the game.”
Kicker Aydin Lambert recovered a fumble after long return by Bundy at the start of the second half and Byron went on a 50-yard drive to take the lead at 14-10. It was Messling scoring from five yards out after eight straight runs.
Monticello came right back with Snyder and Bundy combining on an NFL-caliber opposite field screen for a 20-yard touchdown.
Ian Palzkill and Alberts arrived too late to prevent the score and Monticello led 17-14.
Byron put together another decent drive, but Messling was stacked up by the middle of the Sage line for no gain on fourth-and-inches at the 25.
“We knew we were outsized,” said 205-pound DE Riley Austin, like Bundy, a 4-year varsity player. “We had to show them we could play with them.”
The Sages increased its lead to 24-14 on a 3-yard run by Bundy on a wide-open sweep with Byron defense sucked in from the perimeter. The key play was a brilliant sideline grab by Bradd for 22 yards.
“We may have been a little tight. We’re not used to being in those situations (trailing),” Boyer said.
With eight minutes left in the game, Byron closed to 24-20 on a Messling 1-yard run. Alberts made it possible with a 42-yard kickoff return.
“I thought we ran the ball well,” Boyer said.
The Tigers had an impressive 307 yards rushing, but only averaged 4.3 yards a carry, about half of what they usually do.
Byron had two more scoring opportunities with good field position, but were denied both times. Welter gambled by stacking everybody but Bundy at the line of scrimmage to stop the powerful Tiger ground game and it worked both times.
On the second stop, Boyer called a halfback-option pass from Stickler to Snodgrass, but the 4-year starter Bundy made an athletic interception while nearly climbing up the back of Snodgrass.
“It was a great play by their kid,” Boyer said. “In hindsight, maybe we shouldn’t have done it.”