By Steve Gunn
It has to play almost mistake-free football, and the Montague Wildcats didn’t do that on Saturday.
An illegal substitution penalty on fourth down in the fourth quarter killed a key Montague drive that could have put the Wildcats back in the lead.
An Ithaca interception in Montague territory later in the fourth led to a Yellowjacket touchdown that the Wildcats couldn’t afford.
When it was all said and done, Montague, ranked second in the state, squandered a pair of first-half leads and fell to No. 1-ranked Ithaca 33-23 in a Division 6 regional final showdown on its home field.
Ithaca quarterback Joey Bentley was the star of the game with four rushing touchdowns and one TD pass.
Montague finished the season 11-1 with a West Michigan Conference championship and a Division 6 district title. Ithaca, now 12-0, advances to play in the state semifinals.
“Ithaca, turnovers, penalties and field position – with those four things, you’re going to have a hard time beating them,” said Montague Coach Pat Collins. “I don’t know how you pull it off with the situation that we had.”
The game started out on a very promising note for Montague when junior running back Bryce Stark broke through the middle and ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. The two-point conversion was successful, giving the Wildcats an 8-0 lead.
Stark finished with 223 yards on 27 carries and scored two touchdowns in the game.
But Stark fumbled on Montague’s next possession, and Ithaca recovered the ball at the Wildcat 34. On the very next play Bentley hit Devin Barnes with a 34-yard touchdown throw. The Yellowjackets added a two-point conversion pass, tying the game 8-8 about 3 1/2 minutes into the contest.
Bentley added a 19-yard touchdown run about eight minutes into the game. The PAT kick was blocked, and Ithaca led 14-6.
Montague’s offense stumbled for a while after that, turning the ball over on another fumble and punting twice on its next three possession.
The situation appeared dire when a penalty left the Wildcats with a second down and 22 on their own six-yard line, early in the second half.
But then Montague roared back to life. Junior quarterback Sebastian Archer ripped off runs of 24, 14 and 15 yards, and Stark added a 13-yard scamper, giving the Wildcats a first down at the Ithaca 14.
Stark finished the drive with a 14-yard touchdown run, the extra point was good, and the Wildcats had a 15-14 lead at halftime.
“We were way backed up, but we got out and got a little breathing room, and we had no penalties, no turnovers and we clicked down the field,” Collins said about the go-ahead drive. “That’s what we expected to do all day.”
But Montague’s lead didn’t last long into the second half.
Ithaca drove to midfield on the first possession of the third quarter, then punted.. The kick was downed at the Montague 1-yard line, and the Wildcats only drove to their own 29 before punting.
Ithaca got the ball back at its own 41 and moved 59 yards in five plays. Bentley capped the drive with a one-yard TD plunge with 4:05 left in the third quarter. The conversion attempt failed , and the Yellowjackets had a thin 20-15 edge.
Montague responded by driving to the Ithaca 22-yard line, where it faced a crucial fourth-and-six on the first play of the fourth quarter. But the Wildcats were called for an illegal substitution before the ball was snapped, and suddenly faced a fourth-and-11 at the Ithaca 27.
Archer was tackled behind the line of scrimmage on the next play, and the Yellowjackets took over on downs.
Ithaca drove to the Wildcat 25, then Bentley threw a fourth-down pass that was intercepted at the goal line by Montague’s Brennen Schwarz, who returned it to the 17.
But five plays later, with Montague at its own 42, Archer lofted a pass that was picked off by Ithaca’s Seth Davis and returned all the way to the Wildcat two-yard line.
Bentley scored from a yard out three players later, the extra point attempt was blocked, and Ithaca had a 26-15 lead with 6:02 left in the game.
“We usually don’t put (the pass) in that spot – it’s usually a longer route – but (Archer) was just trying to make a play,” Collins said about the key interception. “They were getting some pressure on him, and their guy stepped up and made a play.”
Bentley added a 50-yard touchdown run with 2:47 remaining, putting the Yellowjackets up 33-15.
Montague added a late touchdown on a one-yard run by Archer, and the conversion made the score 33-23, but the Wildcats could get no closer.
Archer rushed for 87 yards on 18 carries with one touchdown. He completed 9 of 19 passes for 108 yards.
Blake Jones and Joe Rupert led the Montague defense with 10 tackles apiece while Joe Scott added nine. Rupert also had a key sack for the Wildcats.
Ithaca did not turn in individual stats immediately after the game, but unofficially Bentley finished with 178 yards on the ground with four touchdowns.
“We had a great season,” said Collins, who will return many talented players next season. “I’m proud of what our guys accomplished.
“We felt we were right there in the top of our division (statewide), and we thought we had a top four team, but we ran into them a little early, and one of us was going to go home today. Unfortunately it was us.
“We’re figuring those guys are going to take home the state title, or at least be in the state finals.”