BYRON, Ill. — A little risk was followed by a big reward Saturday for the Byron football team, positioning the Tigers to run away to a 50-28 victory over Rock Island Alleman in the opening round of the Illinois Class 3A playoffs.
Byron hit big play after big play to run off 36 unanswered points and turn a 14-7 game late in the first into a 50-7 halftime edge at wind-swept Everett Stine Field.
None was bigger than Isaac Stickler’s third touchdown of the game, an 85-yard run with 8 minutes, 27 seconds remaining in the second quarter that came after the Tigers took a chance on a fourth-and-1 play from their own 13-yard line.
Fullback Ian Palzkill gained the needed inches to move the chains, and Stickler followed by weaving through the Pioneers’ defense for an 85-yard sprint that extended the 22-7 lead Byron had built after one quarter.
"When the coaches show that kind of trust in us to make that fourth-down play, it means a lot," said Tyler Elsbury, a 6-foot-6, 295-pound Iowa commit whose blocking cleared the hole for Palzkill to gain the first down yardage.
"That was a big moment in this game, a play we needed to make. We had a lot of respect for Alleman. They play a lot of bigger schools, and they had our attention. We came out ready."
Byron wasted no time sending that message, opening a 14-0 lead just over three minutes into the game.
The Tigers took the opening kickoff and drove 62 yards on five plays, an effort capped by a 10-yard run by Stickler.
Alleman went three and out, but found itself defending from its own 5-yard line following a 46-yard punt return by Dayne Snodgrass. Palzkill ran 5 yards into the end zone on the next snap.
The Pioneers were forced to punt on the ensuing drive as well, but Jackson Marx recovered a fumble on the return at the 20-yard line.
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On a third-down play from that spot, Alec Ponder hit Killian Ahern with a 20-yard touchdown pass, cutting Byron's advantage to 14-7 with 4:24 remaining in the opening quarter.
"We did good job of getting the ball back on special teams, but then they hit us with that string of big plays that we just couldn’t seem to stop," Alleman coach Todd Depoorter said.
Byron blended the run and pass to break the game open.
Senior quarterback Ben Carlson connected on four of the five passes he attempted in the first half, including a 73-yard touchdown pass to Stickler late in the first quarter, a play that preceded his 85-yard run that gave the Tigers a 29-7 lead with 8:07 to play in the first half.
Stickler totaled 244 yards of offense, complementing his 110-yard rushing effort with 134 receiving yards.
The only thing that prevented Byron from scoring on each of its eight possessions in the first two quarters was a turnover that that followed a 61-yard reception by Stickler midway through the second quarter.
Nate Sheets knocked the ball free and Ryan Dockery-Jackson recovered for Alleman at its 5-yard line. The Pioneers were unable to move the ball, and following a 16-yard punt, Izaiah Shultz grabbed an 18-yard touchdown pass from Carlson on next play.
"It seemed like when we were holding their run game down, they’d hit us with a big pass," Sheets said. "They stepped up and made big plays when they needed them, especially in the first half."
The Tigers used a 46-yard punt return by Josiah Fetherston to set up a 5-yard touchdown run by Snodgrass, who caught a 30-yard scoring pass from Carlson to give Byron (9-1) its 50-7 lead at the half that allowed coach Jeff Boyer to use only reserves in the final two quarters.
As was the case during a season which began 0-3 and ended with a playoff berth, Alleman (5-5) didn’t go away.
Ponder hit Lakin Calloway with a 22-yard touchdown pass to complete the Pioneers’ opening drive of the third quarter, and Sheets finished off a 110-yard rushing performance with touchdown runs of 6 and 9 yards in the fourth quarter.
"The coaches kept us together, kept us pushing forward all season and as tough as this is, we can be proud that we continued to fight," Sheets said. "A lot of teams would like to be in this position."