A TD pass in the final seconds vaulted Byron to the title in 2021. Could it happen again?
BYRON — People on both sides of the field remember exactly how it felt when, almost exactly one year ago, Byron eliminated Braidwood Reed-Custer with a touchdown pass with nine seconds left to secure a 28-24 win in the Class 3A state quarterfinals.
Now, this Saturday, it could be time to do it all over again.
The Tigers went on to catch fire after that win last postseason, powering their way through the rest of the 3A bracket to win their first state title since 1999. They also rallied to knock off IC Catholic 15-14 in the semis, but it was the drive and the TD to beat Reed-Custer that stands out as the key play to the entire postseason for a lot of the players involved.
"That was the game that did it; that might have been the play that got us the title, right there," Byron's third-year starting quarterback Braden Smith said. "That was huge."
Byron's last-minute win: Byron football back in state semifinals after dramatic TD in final seconds
For Reed-Custer, it cost them their own run at the title, and sent them home earlier than they expected. They, too, remember it well.
"Absolutely our guys remember," said Reed-Custer coach Gavin Johnston, who has nine starters back on defense and six on offense from that team that suffered such a late-season heartbreak to Byron. "Our theme this season has been 'Unfinished business.' That's been our calling all year."
"Our theme this season has been 'Unfinished business.' "
Reed-Custer coach Gavin Johnston
The two teams will meet up again — on the same field, in the same round, just one day short of exactly a year later — at 1 p.m. Saturday with another Class 3A state semifinal berth on the line.
Here is how last year's game will have a bearing on this year's, because of how strong the memory is to both:
How it unfolded last year
Here is how quarterback Braden Smith remembers it all unfolding:
"We got the ball and I remember being down, and a long ways out, and we didn't have much time — but it's weird, because no one seemed worried," said Smith, who drove his team 61 yards in 10 plays in 2:46, launching the game-winning TD pass on his only throw of the day with 9.2 seconds remaining.
"We just calmly marched right on down. ... Then, the play.," he said. "That play was probably the biggest moment of our entire title run. He was so open. I couldn't miss him."
He didn't. He floated a perfect pass right into the awaiting arms Chandler Binkley, who strolled in for the game-winning TD. Reed-Custer had two desperation tries that failed as the clock reached zero.
"It was like a dream," Smith said. "I remember it so well. It was so nuts after that. Everybody went crazy. We still had to finish the game, but we knew we would.
"Now, we're going to have to do it again."
This Byron squad has grown
Byron will look to knock off Reed-Custer again, but the Tigers would prefer not to wait until there's under 10 seconds left in the showdown to do it. Especially Smith.
"It was fun," Smith said, "but I like winning the way we have been this year."
Byron (10-1) has done a lot of winning big this season. After dropping the opener 15-7 to Stillman Valley (which lost its regular-season finale to share the conference title with Byron), the Tigers have outscored its last 10 foes by 400 points. That includes its last two playoff opponents, which felt the wrath as Byron rolled, beating Lisle 52-7 and then hammering Seneca 56-21.
"This team is clicking," Byron coach Jeff Boyer said.
Sparked by another powerful line, the Tigers have the deepest backfield in the area — probably one of the deepest in the state. They have three running backs with over 500 yards rushing on the season that have combined for 22 touchdowns, led by freshman Caden Considine (587 yards and 8 TDs). They also have eight backs with more than 238 yards, all of which are averaging more than 5 yards a carry.
Then there's the quarterback that has 451 yards on the ground and another eight TDs. That QB, Smith, also has 335 yards through the air with six touchdown passes and no interceptions.
"We like the way this team is put together," Smith said. "And this Reed-Custer team could be even better than last year. But so could we."
This Reed-Custer squad is the same
This year's Reed-Custer squad is very similar to last year's. Very.
"Well, a lot of those guys that felt that loss, that were out there on that field playing their hearts out, are back, and ready for this one," Johnston said.
The Comets were led by quarterback Jake McPherson last year, and they are again this season. He rushed for 115 yards and a TD during a 24-6 win over Durand/Pecatonica last week, and also threw for 74 yards on 6-for-10 passing despite the stormy conditions.
In the Byron game last year, McPherson suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter, and though he returned after missing a series, he was hobbled and slowed the rest of the game. He still completed 15 of 25 pass attempts for 211 yards with a touchdown and an interception, and also had 23 yards rushing and a TD run on six carries.
McPherson has 791 yards and nine TDs rushing this season, and he's thrown for 1,270 yards and 23 touchdowns as well. Running back Jace Christian has 859 yards, averaging 13.4 yards per carry, and he's scored 19 TDs on the ground. McPherson has completed an impressive 71 of his 93 passes, including 23 to Lucas Foote, who has 532 yards receiving and 13 touchdown catches.
There are a lot of weapons on this team. There are a lot of weapons on both teams.
"They're good; so are we," Smith said. "It could come down to the end again."
Jay Taft is a Rockford Register Star sports reporter. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @JayTaft. Sign up for the Rockford High School newsletter at rrstar.com. Jay has covered a wide variety of sports, from the Chicago Bears to youth sports, for more than 22 years at the Register Star, and for nearly 30 years all together.