3A Playoffs: Byron 28, Princeton 0
PRINCETON — Excitement filled the air as blue filled the stands at Bryant Field, where Princeton Tiger fans were happy to see postseason play continue for the 3A second round playoff, at home for the first time since 2015.
Unfortunately for the Tigers and their faithful, that is also where it ended as the visiting No. 1-ranked Byron Tigers overcame a slow start to finish big with a 28-0 win Saturday afternoon.
Byron (11-0) advances to host Lisle (a Friday night 37-25 winner over Poplar Grove) in a 3A quarterfinal matchup on Saturday.
"My hat's off to Byron, they're a heck of a football team," PHS coach Ryan Pearson said. "I really felt the winner of this game would be playing on Thanksgiving, and now I think Byron's gonna be playing for that state title."
Princeton came into the game missing two key elements to their offense, senior running backs Dallas Hill and Jakob Ebner, both injured in last week's win over Elmwood-Brimfield.
During the game, they would lose the services of receiver Payton Moore as well as running back Daniel Crowe and lineman Chase Tatum. Even quarterback Beck Robbins missed a few third quarter minutes after getting flattened in a broken pass play.
"We were kind of reeling a little bit, but I'm extremely proud of our kids," Pearson said. "They regrouped and continued to battle the entire game.
"We'd been pretty fortunate, avoided the injury bug all the way up through the season, but got bit by it last week. But our mantra is 'next man up,' and I thought our kids did a great job of stepping in and filling those roles."
The PHS fans were given something to cheer about right at the start when Byron's Issac Stickler's kickoff return was stopped at his own 10 yard line by a swarm of Tiger defenders, followed by a drive that barely reached midfield but ate up a lot of time in the process.
Robbins led the Tigers downfield for the next five minutes, only to see Byron's line twice deny Ronde Worrels in the end zone on 4th and goal plays.
"Yeah, that was a big stop for our defense," Byron coach Jeff Boyer said. "They played tremendous all day long. Offensively, we were a little sloppy, so there's some things to clean up."
Still scoreless and Byron with the ball, the second quarter started with a scare for the Princeton Tigers when Moore, on defense, went down and was taken out of the game at 11:41.
Byron capped the drive with a 28-yard TD run by Drake Snodgrass (his first of three in the game) at 9:17 to put them on the scoreboard first. He found the end zone again on a 53-yard pass from QB Ben Carlson to put Byron up 14-0 in the middle of the second quarter.
The Byron running game picked up steam, with Snodgrass gaining a total of 135 yards on 16 carries, while fellow running backs Issac Stickler and Ricky Messing would tally 62 yards each toward their team total of 275 yards rushing compared to PHS' game total of 36.
"We relied on the running game all year long, we've got three to four kids that can carry the ball and break it at any time," Boyer said. "Snodgrass is the most noticeable because he gets the most yards, but Stickler and Messing are not too far behind."
Messing scored on a 1-yard TD run to end the half with Byron firmly in control 21-0.
The PHS defense rallied to keep Byron scoreless in the third quarter, helped by Trevor Tate making a second critical fumble recovery to give his team another chance at the ball.
Unfortunately for the PHS offense, Robbins was given less and less time to unload the ball to make the needed big plays. PHS tallied 79 passing total yards compared to Byron's 103.
Byron would get the last word for the day, as Snodgrass scored on a 24-yard run with less than a minute left in the game to end it with a 28-0 win.
"Overall, you kinda look back at the 'shoulda-coulda-wouldas,' and there's just a couple of plays that didn't go our way," Pearson said. "That's how the game of football goes sometimes, and you just continue to keep fighting."
Though the disappointment showed in his players at the end, their coach reminded them in the post-game huddle that they had a season to be proud of.
"We came in this year with some goals in mind," Pearson said. "We wanted to be conference champions, and we accomplished that. We wanted to get to the playoffs, and not only just get there but do some damage once we got there.
"If we'd drawn anybody but Byron, I think that we'd still be playing, but that's just how it goes. Overall, I thought we had a great year, and I especially thank our seniors who gave so much to the program and did things the right way."
Worrels, sophomore running back, is counting on doing the same and more next season.
"We had a lot of young guys who will come back with experience," he said. "We'll be back, we'll ready next year."