Rockets Left with Familiar feeling in State Championship Defeat

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Scott Hamilton is all too acquainted with this scenario.

A microphone was placed in front of him. Players seating to his left and right had gloomy looks. Members of the media have asked for an explanation.

Unity fell 35-7 to Byron in Friday’s Class 3A Championship at Huskie Stadium on the campus of Northern Illinois University, falling shy of a state title for the sixth time in as many tries under Hamilton.

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The Tigers (14-0) controlled time of possession nearly precisely 2-to-1 vs the Rockets (13-1) — 32 minutes and 5 seconds to 15:55 — and finished five of their eight drives in the end zone.

As the day moved to nighttime, Byron maintained its defensive posture on the turf playing field, forcing Unity into a three-and-out on the Rockets’ first drive.

After that, the Tigers needed just five plays to take a 7-0 lead, culminating with a 32-yard touchdown throw from sophomore Braden Smith to Palzkill with 8:43 remaining in the first quarter.

Byron coach Jeff Boyer stated earlier this week that his club had an approximately 90-10 balance in terms of run plays vs throw plays. The Tigers, on the other hand, made effective use of Smith’s arm (3 of 5 for 64 yards) to go along with 317 running yards and three touchdowns from Binkley, Claunch, and Palzkill.

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Byron scored more than eight plays per possession, however a one-play drive in the fourth quarter reduced that statistic. Three of the Tigers’ possessions lasted at least six minutes, while another came close. In addition, the Tigers converted 9 of 13 third-down attempts and 2 of 4 fourth-down chances.

The Rockets had one offensive turnover and allowed one sack. Aside from that, the game’s fate was mostly determined by Byron hanging on to the ball and seldom letting go.

“It’s difficult to see our defense when (the Tigers) are just marching, marching, marching,” said Unity senior quarterback Blake Kimball. “But we had trust in the defense all day, and they were simply a great team.” They’d receive three yards, four yards, three yards, four yards, three yards, four yards, three yards, four yards, three yards, four yards, three yards, four yards That’s why they’re so difficult.”

With just 18 seconds remaining before halftime, Smith surged across the goal line for a 1-yard touchdown run on a quarterback keeper, increasing the Rockets’ deficit to 20-0. Unity’s goose seemed to be cooked as the Tigers were prepared to receive the opening kickoff in the second half.

Instead, the Rockets put together a remarkable three-play, 69-yard drive.

Kimball completed a short toss to sophomore Jay Saunders, who lateraled to junior running back Matt Brown for an 18-yard gain. Kimball then connected with Saunders again for a 12-yard reception before capping off the fast-paced series with a long bomb that senior Dillon Rutledge caught while diving into the end zone for a 37-yard touchdown catch.

Unity trailed 20-7 and went into the locker room feeling better about its predicament.

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