Byron scores on 4th down, makes conversion at :05 to squeeze into title game

Jay Taft
Rockford Register Star

ELMHURST — With another gut-wrenching comeback, the Byron Tigers soared back into the Class 3A state championship game for the third postseason in a row, scoring two touchdowns in the final four minutes to claim the win.

Byron defeated Elmhurst IC Catholic 15-14 in Saturday's semifinals, avenging a 7-0 loss to the same team in the 2017 state semis.

The Tigers will now take on Tolono Unity, which defeated Mount Carmel 28-21, in the 3A state championship game next Friday at 4 p.m.

Byron head coach Jeff Boyer, right, celebrates with defensive coordinator Sean Considine after Byron beat IC Catholic in Elmhurst on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, sending the Tigers to their third straight state championship game. Byron won 15-14 in the final five seconds of the game.

Senior Chandler Binkley scored a touchdown on a fourth-down, 3-yard run with five seconds left and added the game-winning two-point conversion run to cap off the mad scramble that proved to be the final blow to IC Catholic (11-2).

"I looked at all of my seniors and asked them, 'What do you want to do?' They all yelled go for two," Byron coach Jeff Boyer said. "That's what they wanted, that's what they did and that's what they got... I am so proud of these guys, I don't even know what to tell you."

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Byron (13-0) was in its fourth straight 3A state semifinal game, and it placed second in state both in 2018 and 2019, losing both state title games by four points.

The Tigers came into the game averaging 7.3 yards per carry as a team with 3,873 yards and 59 touchdowns on the ground, led by Binkley (1,142 yards rushing and 15 TDs). Binkley and the Tigers offense were held in check for most of the day, however. Byron had just four first downs and Binkley only had 34 yards on nine carries in the first half, but they started to get momentum late in the game.

Byron's Chandler Binkley drives to the goal line for Byron's second TD with five seconds left in the fourth quarter of the Class 3A semifinal game in Elmhurst on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Byron beat IC Catholic 15-14.

"This team just doesn't know what it means to quit," said Binkley, who finished with 86 yards and that touchdown on 23 carries. "As a group we just want a state championship, and we're going to keep fighting until we get what we want. … We wore them down."

IC Catholic (10-3) had shut out Byron for 92 minutes in the state semifinals (48 minutes last time, 44 minutes Saturday) before the Tigers scored 15 points in the final 3:45 Saturday.

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After Isiah Gooden locked in a catch on his hip for 15 yards down to the Knights 5 on a third-and-4, QB Braden Smith threw a touchdown pass to the other Tigers tight end, Max Connell, to kickstart Byron's comeback.

"Braden threw a couple of great passes in that drive that were just huge," Gooden said of Smith, who was 2-for-6 for 13 yards through the air until the final two drives. He was 3-for-3 for 36 yards with a TD in the final 3:45. "And I got pounded pretty hard. But somehow I hung on. I don't know how, really."

The late rally may not have come to fruition had the Tigers not recovered the ensuing onside kickoff. Carsen Behn pounced on it and wouldn't give it up on the bottom of the pile, putting Byron back in business.

Byron tight end Isiah Gooden celebrates after Chandler Binkley pushes over the goal line during the fourth quarter of the state semifinal game in Elmhurst on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Byron beat IC Catholic 15-14 in the final five seconds of the game.

"Coach basically told us, if you get this onside, we're going to march it down, we're going to score, and we're going to win this thing," Binkley said. "And that's exactly what happened. … We were like: 'We're in this, all we need is a chance. Now let's go.' "

Byron had been stuffed at the IC Catholic 5 on fourth down on the first play of the fourth quarter, but the Tigers got hot when it counted. In the end, they used 14 plays to take it the 51 yards they needed, and got the final three yards for the two-pointer to ice it.

IC Catholic quarterback Dennis Mandala, who finished the game 7-for-10 passing for 155 yards, completed a pass across the middle as time expired. But Byron swarmed receiver Deontae Oatman near the Knights 40, and the Tigers celebration began.

"We knew we could get back into this game; we knew it," said Byron wingback Ethan Palzkill, who rushed for 81 yards on 16 carries. "Our goal out there is to make you want to quit; we want you to want to quit. We'll keep hitting you over and over until you don't want to line up anymore. We keep doing it until they give up, and that's what happened again.

"And now we've got a shot at that title."

Jay Taft: jtaft@rrstar.com; @JayTaft