“Scott is amazing,” said Staal’s favorite target, senior Danny Cotter, who had 12 catches for 186 yards and two scores on Friday. “It seems like no matter what, he’s going to throw it on the money. He gets great protection from the line, and we always get great throws from Scott.”
Staal made plenty of great throws, both into and against the wind, including scoring passes of 13 and 12 yards to Cotter. None of his throws, however, were bigger than his completion on a fourth-and-6 play from the Big Reds’ 35-yard line with just over 2 minutes remaining. Staal dropped back and looked to his second-favorite target, Matt Kroll, who hauled in a bullet along the right sideline for a 13-yard gain and a first down.
Two plays later, Devin Howard broke free for a 26-yard touchdown run, putting the finishing touches on the Bucs’ victory.
“That fourth down pass, Matt ran a great route,” Staal said. “They were man-to-man and he shook off his defender, got open, and put two feet down in bounds. We knew after that play we could just run out the clock.”
Staal finished the night 14-of-28 for 204 yards. Whenever the Bucs needed a big play on offense, Staal was able to find his target, typically Cotter, for a big gain.
“We just run so many routes in practice, over and over, that it’s just muscle memory,” Cotter said. “This was just awesome to beat a team like Muskegon, which has dominated the state the last decade, and throughout their history. To be undefeated against them on varsity is amazing.”
Muskegon entered the game ranked No. 2 in Division 2 and boasting a running game that helped the Big Reds average over 35 points per game. The Buccaneers’ defense made sure that vaunted veer running attack never got into high gear.
Linebackers C.J. Moll, Matt Mulcahy and Tanner Jacobs were all over the field making big play after big play, while the Bucs’ gritty defensive line, including Norris Ellis, Torrey Appel and Connor Moynihan helped stuff the running game and also made life miserable for Muskegon quarterbacks Princton Duncan and Jai’lyn Thompson. That pair combined to complete just 3-of-9 passes for 25 yards.
Duncan, who got the start and played most of the game before leaving with a thumb injury, broke free for a few big runs and finished with 95 yards on 21 carries. Running back Juwan Lewis was bottled up for most of the night, although he did break a 26-yard scoring run and finished with 107 yards on 23 carries.
He was stuffed for a two-yard loss on a fourth-and-1 play on the Big Reds’ first possession of the third quarter.
“It’s just awesome,” Mulcahy said. “We all came together and did our best. We stopped them a few times inside the 20, and those were huge stops for our defense.”
Grand Haven’s biggest defensive stand came in the second quarter. The Buccaneers had fumbled away back-to-back kickoffs, allowing the Big Reds to grab a 14-7 lead. Muskegon was poised to go up another score after recovering a botched kickoff at the Bucs’ 25-yard line. Two short runs and an incomplete pass set up a fourth-and-9 from the 24. Muskegon’s Ryan Williams-Follins attempted a halfback pass that was caught in the end zone by teammate Mikal McCoy, but Bucs’ safety Aaron Gordon nudged McCoy out of bounds before the Big Reds’ receiver could get a foot down.
“Down 14-7 and they’re getting ready to put another one in, and the kids came up with a huge defensive stop,” Bucs’ coach Mike Farley said.
The Bucs’ offense responded, driving 76 yards on six plays, including a 48-yard throw-and-catch from Staal to Cotter. Dakota Smith, who finished with 128 yards rushing and two touchdowns, scored from 1 yard out for a 14-14 tie.
The Bucs then went ahead 21-14 when Staal hooked up with Cotter on an 11-yard scoring strike with 52 seconds to play in the half.
Both teams were plagued by turnovers early in the game. Aside from the two muffed kickoffs, the Bucs’ Howard fumbled inside the 5-yard line as he appeared to be heading in for a touchdown midway through the first quarter.
Muskegon also lost two first-half fumbles and committed several costly penalties. The Big Reds were flagged 10 times for 93 yards while Grand Haven committed eight penalties for 72 yards.
The Bucs, however, were able to overcome long-yardage situations with their passing game. They converted on a pair of key fourth-down plays and out-gained Muskegon 368 yards to 263.
Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield was frustrated with his team’s lack of production on offense, particularly in the third quarter, when the Big Reds started each of their three drives in Grand Haven territory yet managed to score just once.
“We’ve got to go back and evaluate and figure out ways to put the ball in the end zone,” Fairfield said. “It’s frustrating. We’ve got to figure out a way, when we have the ball inside the 20, the 30, to score touchdowns.”
Grand Haven now turns its attention to West Ottawa, a team that beat the Buccaneers twice last year. Still, Friday’s win over a very strong Muskegon team is one the Grand Haven players, coaches and fans won’t soon forget.
“This is a huge win for us,” Farley said. “We have a tremendous amount of respect for Muskegon as a football program. ... I couldn’t be more pleased with those kids. They work hard all the time.”