LIVINGSTON – With the way Iowa-Grant had been playing in the post-season, Darlington head coach Scott Zywicki knew his Redbirds would have to be perfect to keep their sensational playoff run alive.
That is easier said than done.
Instead, it was the #2-seeded Panthers who played error-free football and they made the #8-seeded Redbirds pay for every mistake they made as well en route to a hard-hitting 32-15 victory in a WIAA Division 6 Level 3 playoff contest at IGHS on Saturday, Nov. 3.
“They were playing at an extremely high level and we didn’t play our best game,” said Zywicki. “It would have taken our best effort to beat (Iowa-Grant) the way their kids were playing. We just didn’t have it.”
The Redbirds (6-5 overall) turned the ball over four times, three which led directly to Panther scores; and they were flagged for seven penalties, including two on defense which led to critical I-G first downs that kept long drives going for the hosts.
“Too many mistakes. You can’t spot an excellent team like them the lead or give them too many extra opportunities. And, that’s what we did. They made us pay for the turnovers. That’s the mark of a good team. When you get the opportunities, you take advantage of them and they did that today,” admitted Zywicki.
The Panthers (9-2) grabbed the lead on their second possession of the game when junior fullback Cody Rider capped a 10-play, 63-yard scoring trek with a 6-yard touchdown jaunt. Eli Wienkes added the extra point to put the hosts ahead to stay at 7-0 with 1:09 remaining in the first quarter.
I-G got the ball right back following an interception by Rider at midfield and the Panthers went right back to work, marching 37 yards on eight plays with senior quarterback Derek Peat scrambling for a 14-yard TD run with 7:51 to play in the first half to put his Panthers ahead 13-0.
Peat ran four times for 25 yards on the drive and completed his only pass of the day for eight yards on a 4th-and-6 play from the 20 to keep the drive alive.
“They essentially have three good running backs. We had people in position to tackle them at times, but we didn’t make the play. Their kids were just better than our kids today,” stated Zywicki about the Panthers, who edged the Redbirds by a score of 12-6 back in week 3.
Darlington came out after halftime and got right back into the game with a quick score. On the second play of the second half, sophomore quarterback Cole McDonald threaded a pass to sophomore running back Jason Singer in traffic. Singer pulled down the pass in stride, made the corner and raced untouched down the hosts’ sideline to put the ‘Birds on the board.
Hayden Black’s PAT cut the deficit to 13-7 just 57 seconds into the third quarter.
The defense fed off the offense’s spark and forced a quick Panther punt on their first drive of the half. However, on the second play from scrimmage, Singer lost a fumble after a long gain and I-G’s Tucker Sarbacker pounced on the loose ball at the Redbird 28.
An offside penalty by the Redbirds on 4th-and-4 from the 22 gave the Panthers a key first down, and five plays later Peat bulled in from the 1 to extend the hosts’ lead to 19-7 with 2:53 to play in the third quarter.
“It was a huge play. They gained the momentum back,” Zywicki said. “We had a few too many mistakes. All those things combined– the turnovers and penalties– added up on the scoreboard.”
The Panthers’ D got into the scoring early in the fourth quarter when Wienkes swiped an ill-advised halfback option pass just inside the Redbirds 20 and he weaved his way into the end zone to make it 25-7.
Darlington answered back with a pride-filled 12-play, 65-yard scoring drive to keep the score in reach. The ‘Birds overcame three penalties during the drive and mixed the run and pass well on it to march down the field on the stingy Panthers.
Sophomore fullback Myles Leahy closed the drive with an impressive 21-yard scoring scamper with 5:29 to play, and Singer punched in the conversion to close the gap to 25-15.
The Redbirds tried an onside kick to get the ball back, but it didn’t work. Then, Peat erased all hopes by scoring from 48 yards out on the first play from scrimmage to put the Panthers ahead 32-15 with 5:19 remaining.
The Panthers picked off another pass to halt the Birds’ ensuing drive; and, with Sarbacker ripping off a pair of first down runs, the hosts were able to run out the clock for their second victory over the Redbirds this season.
I-G advances to the state semifinal round for the first time since 1979. The Panthers will face unbeaten and defending D6 state champion Saint Mary’s Springs (11-0) in Middleton at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 10.
Sarbacker led the Panthers rushing attack with 139 yards on 23 carries. Peat followed with 87 yards on 18 carries with three scores, while Rider tallied 58 yards on 16 totes and a score as I-G outgained the Redbirds on the ground, 286-132.
“Their big guys controlled the line of scrimmage. We had a heck of a time blocking them and bringing them down,” said Zywicki.
Leahy gained 53 yards on nine carries with a TD to lead the Redbirds on the ground. Singer also ran nine times for 52 yards and he hauled in four passes for 91 yards and a score to guide the air attack.
McDonald finished 4-for-8 passing for 91 yards and a TD for the ‘Birds.
Saturday’s game marked the final prep appearance for seniors Storm Wiegel, Dylan Nyffenegger, Chase Tuescher, Trent Nyffenegger and Dakota Morrone.
“They’ve shown great leadership all year. They’ve been outstanding role models,” boasted Zywicki of his small but dedicated seniors. “We only had a few on the field most of the time. It’s easy to complain that you’re not playing enough, but they accepted their roles. They will be missed because of that. You only have so many quality role models in a small school, and these five kids we had are those types of kids.”
With 20 of their 22 starters from this year’s stunning playoff run to Level 3 slated to return next year along with a bunch of other underclassmen who saw plenty of playing time this season, expectations will be running high for the Redbirds again next season.
But, Coach Zywicki knows those expectations will only be met if the players put in the work in the weight room during the off-season.
“We’re going to have to come back bigger and stronger next year and remember all the good things we did this season,” commented Zywicki. “You can say you’re going to be really good next season, but that doesn’t mean anything if you’re not willing to work for it. Everybody wants to be good. It’s the people that separate themselves by working hard to be good and not settling for anything less than their best.”
Darlington…. 0 0 7 8 - 15
Iowa-Grant… 7 6 6 13 - 32
IG – Rider, 7 run (Wienkes kick)
IG – Peat, 14 run (kick failed)
D – Jason Singer, 68 pass from Cole Erickson (Hayden Black kick)
IG – Peat, 1 run (run failed)
IG – Wienkes, 19 interception return (run failed)
D – Myles Leahy, 21 run (Singer run)
IG – Peat, 48 run (Wienkes kick)
Team Stats: First Downs- D 9; IG 20. Rushing- D 27-132; IG 57-286. Passing- D 4-9-3, 91; IG 1-2-0, 8. Fumbles-Lost- D 4-1; IG 0-0. Penalties- D 7-54, IG 3-15.
Darlington Leaders: Rushing (Att-Yds-Td)- Myles Leahy, 9-53-1. Passing (Comp-Att-Int-Td-Yds)- Cole McDonald, 4-8-2-1, 91. Receiving (Cat-Yds-Td)- Jason Singer, 4-91-1.