By Steve Gunn
But two missed opportunities in the fourth quarter cost them the chance to nail down a victory, and they fell 38-35 to the Stevenson Patriots, a Chicago-area power, in a big-play thriller in their home opener at Hackley Stadium.
The Big Reds led Stevenson 35-31 midway through the fourth quarter, and the visiting Patriots had the ball, fourth-and-goal, at the Muskegon 14-yard line.
Stevenson quarterback Aldan O’Connell lofted a pass to the corner of the end zone, but Muskegon defender Da’Monte Neal outjumped the receiver and came down with the interception, preserving the Big Red lead.
A few first downs on the ensuing drive would probably have sealed the victory, but the Big Reds failed to move the ball and had to punt. Stevenson then drove 51 yards in eight plays and scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 9-yard run by Matt Korinek with 57 seconds remaining.
The Big Reds weren’t done. They drove from their own 46 to the Patriot 9-yard line with six seconds remaining, and could have tied the game and sent it to overtime with a field goal.
But the attempt sailed wide to the right, allowing Stevenson to escape with the win.
Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield was disappointed with the loss, but said his team learned a lot of valuable lessons against an excellent opponent from Illinois.
He said the experience was far more valuable than an off day, which would have occurred if the Big Reds hadn’t agreed to play an out-of-state team in Week 2. He also said it was much more valuable than last week’s easy victory over Ann Arbor Pioneer.
“Now our kids have experienced the moment and know what to expect in a game like this,” Fairfield said. “Our kids played their hearts out. That’s what high school football should be like every weekend. I told the kids in the locker room, when we were down by three at halftime, that this is good high school football.
“Last week was no fun. This was fun. How many learning moments did we have last week? We didn’t learn anything about ourselves and have opportunities to learn and grow. This was like playoff football.”
Muskegon looked like a sure bet to win the game in the early going.
They used a series of big plays to jump out to leads of 14-0 and 21-7 by the end of the first quarter.
Quarterback Kalil Pimpleton started the scoring with a 40-yard touchdown run with about seven minutes left in the first quarter. They added another score about four minutes later when Da’Vion McCall hauled in a 35-yard touchdown pass from Pimpleton.
Stevenson got on the board about a minute later when O’Connell threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Henry Marchese, making the score 14-7.
Muskegon went up 21-7 when Pimpleton, moving in and out of the quarterback position, took a handoff from backup QB La’darius Jefferson and broke through the middle for a 38-yard touchdown run.
That’s when O’Connell, Stevenson’s 6-4, 175-pound senior quarterback, got very hot.
He started to pick apart the Big Red secondary with several dozen completions, and threw touchdown passes of 8, 21 and 16 yards before halftime. By intermission he had completed 25 of 32 throws for 275 yards.
O’Connell finished the game 36-for-51 through the air for 381 yards.
Muskegon had one second-quarter touchdown, a 53-yard scoring strike from Pimpleton to Kevin Reynolds, to take a 28-21 lead.
But O’Connell threw the last of his TD passes, a 16-yarder to Marchese, to tie the score 28-28. Then Stevenson kicked an 18-yard field goal to grab a 31-28 halftime lead.
“We were sending six and seven (rushing the quarterback) and the kids never got any pressure on him,” Fairfield said. “I have no idea why. Normally we get to people and harass quarterbacks. Congratulations to them, however they did it. That was incredible. We were sending one more than they could block and we couldn’t get the quarterback out of the pocket.”
The Big Reds adjusted to the Patriots’ air assault in the second half by putting more players in pass coverage. They picked off two passes and held Stevenson to a single touchdown.
But the Big Reds were also hurt by turnovers in the final two quarters.
Muskegon started the half by driving to the Stevenson 31, before losing the ball on a fumble. The Patriots then drove to the Big Red 5-yard line, before Muskegon’s Jacorey Sullivan intercepted a pass near the goal line to end the threat.
The Big Reds drove back down to the Stevenson 19, before losing the ball on another fumble. After a Stevenson punt, Muskegon scored on a 47-yard touchdown pass from Pimpleton to Raquis McDonald to take a 35-31 lead with 11:52 left in the fourth quarter.
Stevenson then took the kickoff and went on a sustained 12-play drive that took more than five minutes off the clock.
Muskegon looked like it had dodged the bullet when Neal picked off the potential go-head pass in the end zone. But the Big Reds ran only four plays on their next series, failed to move the chains, and had to punt.
That allowed Stevenson to drive from its own 49-yard line and score the winning touchdown with only 57 seconds left.
“I like it that we gave ourselves a chance at the end to win it and tie it,” Fairfield said. “We had a chance.”
Pimpleton had another great game for Muskegon, passing for 176 yards and rushing for 126. Neal led the Big Red defense with eight tackles while Sullivan and Andrew Ward had seven apiece.