'Call 126-counter': Breaking down the final ticks of Byron's dramatic semifinal win

Byron's Chandler Binkley pushes over the goal line for the game-winning, 2-point conversion with five seconds left in the Class 3A state semifinal game in Elmhurst on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Byron beat IC Catholic 15-14 to advance to its third straight state title showdown.
Jay Taft
Rockford Register Star

ELMHURST — The Byron Tigers are not known for their late-game, fast-strike offense.

Not until the past two games, and especially the final 3:42 of Saturday's semifinal win.

Playing to your team's strengths is what a knowledgeable coach like 10th-year coach Jeff Boyer does. He was, after all, the quarterback for Byron's 1999 state title team, and now he has led the Tigers to their third straight state title game as a coach.

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

But all of the sudden, in their last two games, Byron went from wearing down teams with the ground-and-pound to back-to-back, two-minute-drill-filled comebacks.

And it's gotten them another shot at the Class 3A state championship.

"I mean, two finishes. I never thought anything in my career would top last week," Boyer said Saturday after Byron scored with five seconds left to beat Elmhurst IC Catholic 15-14. "And this one goes above it. Unreal. Unbelievable game."

Byron's Maverick Galster takes a knee to reflect after Byron beat IC Catholic in Elmhurst on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Byron won 15-14 in the final five seconds.

Their run-it-right-at-you style has worked for so long, they've stuck with it to the tune of four straight Class 3A state semifinal appearances.

But two weekends ago they got the ball with 2:55 remaining and charged 61 yards down the field in 10 plays, and a 10-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left locked in a 28-24 win over Reed-Custer. And then on Saturday, on the road against a seasoned IC Catholic squad that was aiming for its third state title in four tries, Byron scored its only two touchdowns – and a game-winning 2-point conversion with five seconds left – in the final 3:45 for another exciting late-game victory.

"This is really big for us," Byron's star halfback and linebacker Chandler Binkley said. "We keep showing what else we can do. And we're not done yet."

Here's how the latest comeback unfolded:

Byron's offense comes to life

The Tigers' rally really began when the second half started. IC Catholic moved the ball fairly consistently in the first half while taking a 14-0 lead. The Knights used a 15-play TD drive and then an eight-play scoring march to control the clock, and the game, early on.

But Byron's defense, keyed by Chandler Binkley's seven tackles and Braden Smith's five, forced a punt on IC Catholic's opening drive of the second half, and the Tigers started to show their teeth on offense from there on out.

"I talked to them at halftime, and I said we've got a decision to make here," Boyer said. "We can go through the motions here, and watch them beat us 28-0. Or we can start playing our game, and win this thing. They believed it, right from there."

Byron's Joey Trank hangs on to IC Catholic running back Kareem Parker in the first quarter of the Class 3A state semifinal game in Elmhurst on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

Byron's ensuing 21-play drive chewed up almost the entire third quarter and went 75 yards, but it stalled on the Knights 5. Still, the Tigers were gaining speed, and stealing the momentum.

"Everyone's counted them out from the start," Boyer said, "and all they keep doing is proving people wrong."

Byron surrendered one first down but forced a quick punt on the next possession, and this time, when the Tigers got the ball, they were determined to get in.

Going into a hurry-up, Byron drove 64 yards in 12 plays, using just 5:24 of the clock before QB Braden Smith hit tight end Max Connell for a 5-yard touchdown. Nick Drake's point-after kick was good.

What happened next was as good as it gets for the Tigers.

On-side recovery is huge

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 5 seconds of the game.

"We're not built to score in one minute," Boyer said of the key on-side kickoff recovery with 3:42 left to play, "so we wanted to get the ball with a little bit of time on the clock so we had a chance."

Salisbury's onside kick squirted around just enough to give Carsen Behn time to pounce. He did, relentlessly clinging to the ball and salvaging Byron's season.

The final drive was 14 plays and Boyer used all three timeouts and was able to do it all in just 3:37. Binkley plowed it in from 3 yards out with nine seconds left, and he pushed in backwards for the 2-point conversion to seal the deal.

"You have to give it to your seniors. It's the second week in a row, Jay, Smitty came running to the sidelines and yelled Chandler said to call 126-counter," Boyer said. "We called it, and that's the play we went for two on, too. Just give him the ball.


Heart of a champion

Byron's Kye Aken pushes behind QB Braden Smith for a gain in the third quarter of the Class 3A state semifinal game in Elmhurst on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Byron beat IC Catholic 15-14 in the final five seconds of the game.

Although Byron has not won it all since that 1999 Boyer-led offense drove it right through every opponent it faced, the Tigers have been through a lot, and have persevered. They finished second in the state in 2018 and 2019, the last two times the IHSA held a state football series, falling in both championship games by four points.

But yet, here they are, back for another try.

Their coach believes it's because of what they have inside, not out.

"Two weeks in a row, right," Boyer said seconds after shaking the hands of the IC Catholic players and coaches that his team just eliminated in a gruesome way. "I'll tell you what it is, it's the heart that these guys have. These guys never quit, and they showed that again tonight."

Quarterfinal win:Byron football back in state semifinals after dramatic TD in final seconds

Then, when asked what this win means for him, and for this program, the emotions really kicked in.

"Just, I don't have words for it right now," Boyer said, choking back the tears. "You go through so much with these guys, and for them to accomplish this. Wow. It's not about what I feel, it's about them. It's about these kids, it always has been. I'm just so proud of this group."

The undefeated Tigers will now get their third straight shot at the 3A state title at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb at 4 p.m. Friday, this time taking on undefeated Tolono Unity.

Jay Taft: jtaft@rrstar.com; @JayTaft