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MCDONALD'S GAME OF THE WEEK (WIAA D6 Football): Darlington 35, Benton/Scales Mound/Shullsburg 34
#10 Redbirds topple #6 Knights in Level 1 thriller
Despite the efforts of the Knights' defenders Dylan Heim (#21) and Chandler Kelly (#12), Darlington's Cayden Rankin (#2) reached the ball over the goal line for a late game-winning touchdown in Friday's playoff game. - photo by Tom Gunnell

WIAA FOOTBALL: Darlington 35, Benton/Scales Mound/Shullsburg 34

BENTON — It was a tale of two halves at Benton’s Swift Park last Friday night as the #10-ranked Darlington Redbirds toppled the #6-ranked Benton/Scales Mound/Shullsburg Knights, 35-34, in a wild and crazy WIAA Division 6 Level 1 playoff football game.

Darlington (7-3 overall) could not get anything going offensively in the first half as four first-half turnovers limited the Redbirds to just 11 offensive plays and one first down in the first 24 minutes of play, but the ‘Birds turned things around in a hurry in the second half and rallied to eke out a Level 1 victory for the second consecutive season.

“I’m just proud of our kids on their resiliency,” said Darlington head coach Travis Winkers. “Down 28-7 at the half, they could have easily called it a season but they didn’t.”

The Knights took advantage of a myriad of Darlington miscues to build up a 28-0 lead late in the first half. However, their inability to stop the Redbirds’ big plays and some turnover woes of their own in both halves proved costly as they were unable to land the knockout punch when they had the Birds on the ropes.

“We knew they had speed and that they could strike fast. We just had to continue to take care of our own business and we didn’t do that,” admitted Knights head coach Todd Bastian, who was an assistant coach at Darlington for 17 years before returning to his alma mater 2015.

There were seven turnovers in the first half– four by the Redbirds and three by the hosts. The Knights took advantage of short fields following three of those turnovers to score the game’s first 22 points.

Darlington’s kicker accidentally bumped the ball off the tee on the opening kickoff to start the night on an ominous note, and then the Redbirds tossed an interception on their first play of the game and lost a fumble on a BSMS kickoff for a rough opening six minutes of the game.

Junior quarterback Chandler Kelly cashed in both turnovers by tossing fourth-down touchdown passes to running backs Kaelan Shetler (11 yards) and Brandon Hoppman (20 yards) to up the Knights up 14-0 with 3:32 to play in the opening stanza.

Shetler recovered a Redbird fumble late in the first quarter, and then scored on a 20-yard run on the first play of the second quarter to extend the lead. Shetler added his second two-point conversion play of the half to put the Knights up 22-0.

BSMS used its lone lengthy scoring drive of the night– a 14-play, 74-yard trek– to increase the lead late in the first half. Senior Will Lawrence capped the drive by bulling his way into the end zone from a yard out with 1:47 to go in the half to make it 28-0.

Instead of playing it safe and regrouping during the halftime break, Darlington went to the air and struck pay dirt just moments later with junior Cayden Ranking hauling in a 66-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Braden Davis to get them on the board. The ‘Birds went into the intermission fired up despite trailing 28-7.

“Getting the touchdown before the end of the half was huge. It gave us some confidence that we could pass the ball. It was about calming down and doing what we do best,” noted Winkers.

The momentum continued to swing in the Redbirds favor at the start of the third quarter when sophomore Easton Evenstad busted loose on a 78-yard TD jaunt to cut the deficit to 28-14. The Birds got it to 28-21 on a 1-yard TD run by Davis with 3:33 remaining in the quarter; then, following a quick interception by junior Parker Fitzsimons, Davis teamed with Evenstad on a 61-yard scoring strike to even the score at 28 all.

The Knights looked to regain the lead early in the fourth quarter after a blocked punt by Ben Werner set the hosts up at the Redbirds’ 11, however the Birds blocked Holden Murphy’s 26-yard field goal attempt to keep the score deadlocked.

Lawrence got the ball right back for the Knights with his second interception of the game, and he capped a six-play, 26-yard scoring drive with another 1-yard TD run to put the hosts up 34-28 with 2:43 to play. The Birds rose up and stuffed the Knights’ two-point conversion run to keep the lead at six.

The Redbirds started their ensuing possession at their own 19-yard line, but needed just six plays and 92 seconds to answer the Knights score. Davis connected with junior receiver Carter Lancaster on completions of 39 and 22 yards to move the Birds down to the 2, and Rankin did the rest by just clearing the goal line on a wildcat-keeper with 1:11 left in regulation to knot the score once more.

Then, junior kicker Cole Crist gave Darlington its first lead of the night when he booted his fifth extra-point kick of the game to make it 35-34.

The Knights drove the ball to midfield with time running down, but an interception by Rankin with 19.4 seconds to go seal the victory for the Birds. 

Davis completed 10-of-17 pass attempts for 260 yards and he tossed two touchdowns to go along with his two interceptions. Evenstad finished with 179 all-purpose yards after rushing five times for 89 yards and a score and adding four catches for 90 yards and another score.

Rankin hauled in three catches for 93 yards and a TD, and came up big defensively with an interception and a fumble recovery. Lancaster also made three catches for 77 yards, and he swiped two passes on defense. 

Marty Williams had a sack and a fumble recovery for Darlington, while Bailey Schilling and Wyat Bredeson each recorded a sack for the Birds’ D.

Lawrence ran 32 times for 165 yards and two TDs, and had a fumble recovery and two interceptions on defense.

Shetler toted the ball nine times for 50 yards and a score, and had three catches for 10 yards and another score. Hoppman gained 25 yards on eight carries and led the hosts with three catches for 42 yards and a TD.

Kelly completed 8-of-16 passes for 72 yards and two TDs, but he was picked off four times in the game.

Werner had a sack and a fumble recovery to go along with his blocked punt, while Brad Goffinet added a fumble recovery for the Knights.

Playing in their final prep football game for the Knights were seniors Kaelan Shetler, Caleb O'Neill, Will Lawrence, Dylan Heim, Holden Murphy, Tyler Walton, Cameron Zarko, Brad Goffinet, Zander Jones, Zach Woodworth and Tyler Allen. 

“In the first year of the tri-op, these guys came together and set the bar pretty high. I hope our younger kids learn from them how to play the game the right way,” said Bastian. “These seniors were one heck of a group. Some of those kids I’ve been coaching since fourth grade. They are nice young men. I’m looking forward to see what they do in the future.” 

Darlington will travel to Mondovi on Saturday, Nov. 2, to meet the top-seeded Buffaloes (10-0) in a D6 Level 2 game. Mondovi blanked Whitehall, 54-0, in their playoff opener. 

Saturday’s kickoff is set for 1 p.m.


Darlington…   0    7  21  7 – 35
BSMS……… 14  14    0  6 – 34
BSMS – Kaelan Shetler, 11 pass from Chandler Kelly (pass failed)
BSMS – Brandon Hoppman, 20 pass from Kelly (Shetler run)
BSMS – Shetler, 20 run (Shetler pass from Kelly)
BSMS – Will Lawrence, 1 run (run failed)
D – Cayden Rankin, 66 pass from Braden Davis (Cole Crist kick)
D– Easton Evenstad, 78 run (Crist kick)
D– Davis, 1 run (Crist kick)
D – Evenstad, 61 pass from Davis (Crist kick)
BSMS – Lawrence, 1 run (runf ailed)
D– Rankin, 3 run (Crist kick)
Team StatsFirst Downs– D 6, BSMS 12. Rushing– D 21-113; BSMS 54-245. Passing– D 10-17-2, 260; BSMS 8-16-4, 72. Fumbles-Lost– D 4-4; BSMS 2-2. Penalties- D 5-50; BSMS 3-15.
Darlington Individual Leaders: Rushing (Att-Yds-Td)– Easton Evenstad, 5-89-1. Passing (Comp-Att-Int-Td-Yds)– Braden Davis, 10-17-2-2, 260. Receiving (Cat-Yds-Td)– Cayden Rankin, 3-93-1; Evenstad, 4-90-1; Carter Lancaster, 3-77-0.
BSMS Individual Leaders: Rushing (Att-Yds-Td)– Will Lawrence, 32-165-2; Kaelan Shetler, 9-50-1. Passing (Comp-Att-Int-Td-Yds)– Chandler Kelly, 8-16-4-2, 72. Receiving (Cat-Yds-Td)– Hoppman, 3-42-1; Shetler, 3-10-1.