Slow start haunts Rangers as varsity football falls 35-14 in battle of unbeatens

Matthew Mahoney

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The first quarter of Friday’s contest between the varsity football team and Byron Center buried the Rangers in a hole that they could not eventually climb out of, resulting in a 35-14 loss. After a kickoff return to start off the game that set up for a quick touchdown followed by an interception that resulted in another score from the Bulldogs, the Rangers were going to have a tough time all night. 

“It was definitely a tough mental state knowing it was going to be a tough, physical game early on,” senior Carson Deines said. “Allowing field position inside our own 20 and giving up so many points makes it easy to break yourself up and give up.”

From the first play of the game, the Rangers looked in trouble. On the opening kickoff, Byron Center’s Austin Ottow beat nearly the entire FHC special teams unit, getting tackled six yards short of the end-zone for an 82-yard return. Just two plays later, quarterback Sawyer Wynchers snuck through the end zone for the score, and Byron Center led by a touchdown just a minute into the contest.

Even going down a score early, the Rangers still were very much in the game, but they needed to respond with some authority. After a couple of plays for minimal gains start the drive, junior quarterback Hunter Robinson looked to find senior Dallas Hopson for the completion on 3rd and 10, but the Byron Center defensive back took to face guarding to defend Dallas; the ball hit the defender’s back as he wasn’t even watching the play, popped up 25 feet in the air, and was intercepted by the Bulldogs. Just like that, the Bulldogs found themselves on the FHC 12-yard line with a score already in hand two minutes into the opening quarter.

Not much continued to go well for FHC. After the interception, it took only one play for Byron Center to find the end zone again. Mason Breit took the handoff out of the shotgun, rounding the right edge as he was hunted by a group of FHC defensive players; he beat the edge, diving into the end zone for the score and an incredibly quick 14-0 advantage.

Over the course of the next two drives, it looked like the Rangers had settled in; although they weren’t necessarily succeeding, they weren’t making the easy mistakes they did early on. Both teams punted on their next possessions, leaving the FHC offense with the ball on its own 20-yard line with 5:48 to play in the first. Senior Maguire Mahacek took over in the shotgun for this drive, and after a couple runs for short gains on first and second down, things took a turn for the worst yet again for FHC. Senior Joey Wise ran out of the backfield to the right side of the field, and Maguire looked at him for a potential first down, but an apparent misunderstanding saw the Rangers turn the ball over again with the interception. 

Taking over on the FHC 21-yard line, it looked like the Bulldogs might be stopped for a field goal with the potent FHC defense showing its power in the first couple of plays. But after a few costly penalties from FHC  and some short gains for the Bulldogs, Will Baker was able to run the ball in for Byron Center from the half-yard line, giving Byron Center a 21-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.

After the score, the Rangers showed a bit of life again thanks to a lengthy kickoff return from junior Jacob Bonnett. Catching it on his own 10-yard line and thanks to some good blocking from the special teams unit, Jacob found a hole in the middle of the field to break free. He made it all the way to the 40-yard line untouched, and there the ball was knocked loose forward and out of bounds all the way to the FHC 48-yard line. After a few good plays for short gains, another costly penalty saw FHC forced to punt, giving the Bulldogs the ball back with 10:19 to go in the first half.

Once again, Byron Center didn’t take too long to get something going again. On 2nd and 10 from their own 20, Bulldog quarterback Will Baker found receiver Austin Ottow in-stride near the 50 with nothing but green grass in front of him for the 70-yard touchdown. With the missed PAT, the Bulldogs held a 27-0 lead with nine minutes to play in the half. 

“They were just a very physical and well-coached team,” Carson said. “Every player on that team was enthusiastic and ready to play, and I think their big lead so early in the game helped with that.”

Finally, something went well for the Rangers. Jacob returned the kickoff from his own 12-yard line, finding a massive hole through the middle for the 88-yard score to spring some life back into FHC.

“[The touchdown] felt good to change the momentum and finally start to get things going our way,” Jacob said.

After the touchdown, the FHC defense too seemed to have a bit more spark. With great coverage on the kickoff and a penalty against the Bulldogs, the Byron Center offense had to start its drive deep inside its own territory. A few defensive stops and disciplined coverage led to a Byron Center punt, and the Rangers took over on their own 46 with 6:51 to play in the first half.

The FHC offense came back out on the field, and Hunter returned at quarterback. He found senior Jonah Spates for a 13-yard reception inside Byron Center’s 30-yard line quickly, following it up with a 24-yard completion to Joey. The Rangers were starting to get some serious success, and Hunter’s throwing ability was a big piece of it. On the Bulldog 4-yard line, junior Benny Scholler went in motion for the sweep handoff from Hunter, and he went towards the left edge before cutting back for the score. With Benny’s touchdown and a PAT from junior Luke Gustafson, it was all the sudden a two-possession game, with Byron Center leading 27-14 with 3:21 to play in the half.

Taking over inside their own half, the Bulldogs killed some clock before getting going. Then, as the clock approached a minute and a half left, the offense got rolling. Byron Center found itself on the FHC 10-yard line, but the FHC defense woke up again, sacking the Bulldog quarterback to put them in challenging field goal range. As time expired, Byron Center attempted a 35-yard field goal, but Jonah came in to make the play with the blocked field goal. At the interval, the Bulldogs held a 27-14 lead.

“I’m happy about the way we bounced back in the second quarter,” Jacob said. “After being down 27-0, we still played hard and had some momentum going our way into halftime.”

The Rangers received the ball to start the second half, and Hunted had the offense rolling down the field. A decent gain from Hunter to Benny saw the Rangers enter some threatening territory. On 2nd and 7 from the BC 34-yard line, Hunter looked deep and saw Jonah streaking toward the end zone. The ball from Hunter was slightly underthrown, but Jonah jumped over the Bulldog defensive back for the 50-50 ball. It appeared that Jonah caught it in the air and the ball came loose after he hit the ground, but the referee on the play called it incomplete. On the next play, Hunter dropped the snap and lost some yards, forcing the Rangers to punt. Had the call gone FHC’s way, the game could’ve been 27-21 with a lot of game left, but that play created a massive momentum swing. 

“Obviously [the call] was big. If that’s called a catch, it’s a touchdown and a six-point game. Instead, it’s incomplete, and we give the ball back to Byron Center, who had a 21-play drive that virtually ended the game,” senior Sam Tuori said. “So yeah, it was a huge momentum shifter, but we also can’t dig ourselves that deep of a hole at the start of the game against that good of a team and still expect to win.”

Starting on their own 5-yard line, the Bulldogs had an extensive 11-minute offensive possession that drained the clock and pretty much clinched the game for Byron Center. With 8:11 to play, the Rangers went from possibly being down six points to now trailing by 21 with a score of 35-14.

“As a team, we fought until the end and never gave up,” Carson said. “The effort we gave was decent at times, and I’m happy to say all of us kept our heads high as we knew they were a good team.”

To close out the game, both teams traded possessions with not much happening. The Bulldogs continued to just drain out the clock, securing the 35-14 win. Over the course of the game, the Byron Center offense showed its balance, passing and running for 149 yards each. While not as successful, the Rangers showed their balance too, passing for 63 yards and rushing for 66. Combined with a couple of tough breaks and a lack of offensive success early on, the three total turnovers for FHC are what created the hole. With Byron Center not turning the ball over once and making very few mistakes in general, a team cannot make that many mistakes and come out victorious. 

“We just need to work on executing,” Jacob said. “There were a bunch of plays where we didn’t do the right things, and these impacted the outcome of the game.”

With the first loss of the season, the varsity football team falls to 2-1 on the season and in the conference. Although the boys will certainly be disappointed with the loss, it came against a very talented team that went undefeated in the regular season a year ago. The Rangers will move on and focus their efforts on East Grand Rapids, the first game of this rivalry to take place since 2015. The Pioneers are also 2-1, with high-scoring wins of 49-0 over Greenville and 52-14 against Northview. The Rangers will need to heal up and prepare for an intense rivalry game on Friday that could have very important conference title implications.

“[We need to work on] staying healthy and getting back on track with our offense and defense,” Carson said. “East will be a tough game, but I think this game against Byron Center will allow us to play with a chip on our shoulder.”