The No. 5-ranked Buccaneers couldn’t get going on offense until midway through the final quarter, when the record-breaking duo of quarterback Scott Staal and receiver Danny Cotter hooked up on a 30-yard scoring pass. That made it 21-7 Grand Ledge with 7:21 remaining.
After a defensive stop, the Buccaneers scored again, this time with Staal hooking up with Matt Kroll on a 10-yard touchdown pass with 2:25 to play.
Grand Haven had a shot to tie the game as the Bucs got the ball back on their own 13-yard line with 1:03 remaining, but four straight incomplete passes ended any hopes of a miraculous comeback.
“You’ve got to give credit to Grand Ledge,” said Staal, who completed 20-of-42 passes for 209 yards and a pair of scores. He was picked off twice, sacked three times and hit countless times by a relentless Grand Ledge pass rush.
“They did a great job. They provided pressure all night. They stopped the run, and their secondary was the toughest I’ve seen. They’d have 3-4 guys down, then 7-8 guys back swarming all over.”
The Buccaneers actually moved the ball effectively early in the game, but a pair of interceptions proved costly. On his team’s second possession of the game, Staal tried to get the ball to Matt Kroll on a slant, but the pass was slightly under thrown, allowing Grand Ledge’s Charlie Kreager to make a great play to come up with the interception.
The big defensive stop gave the Comets the momentum, and five plays later, quarterback Jalen Brady, just a sophomore, sidestepped a blitzing linebacker and connected with Andre Carter on a 9-yard scoring pass.
Later in the first quarter, Grand Haven was again driving, this time inside the Grand Ledge 25, when Staal was drilled by a blitzing defensive back. The ball fluttered out of Staal’s hands and was grabbed by Grand Ledge defensive lineman Redmond Riggs, who rumbled 65 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
The Bucs’ best chance to get on the scoreboard before halftime came early in the second quarter. They drove the ball inside the Grand Ledge 5-yard line, but facing a fourth-and-goal play from the 2, attempted a pass to Cotter that was out of his reach.
“Down 14-0 at that point, we wanted to punch one in before halftime,” Grand Haven coach Mike Farley said. “Danny ran a great route, and that’s been a great play for us all season. We just didn’t connect on it.”
The Bucs didn’t threaten again before halftime, then went three-and-out in all three of their third-quarter possessions. The Grand Ledge defensive line was responsible for most of the Bucs’ offensive struggles as that unit, led by Riggs, put constant pressure on Staal.
“Our defensive staff did a great job mixing up coverages,” said Grand Ledge coach Matt Bird, whose team is now 8-2 and travels north to face Rockford next Friday. “Staal is a heck of a ball player, and Cotter and No. 12 (Kroll) seem to catch everything that’s thrown to them. We knew we had to get pressure on him, not let him sit in the pocket, make him throw off his back foot.”
The Bucs hung around thanks to a fantastic defensive effort of their own. Linebacker Tanner Jacobs made a team-high 7.5 tackles, including two for loss, while defensive lineman Conner Moynihan continued his fantastic late-season play with 2.5 sacks. Linebacker Matt Mulcahy and safety Isaak Newhouse were also in on several tackles for the Bucs, who limited the Comets to just 213 total yards.
Still, Grand Ledge was able to take advantage of a few big plays, and when Brady connected with Blake Dahlstrom on a 48-yard touchdown pass just three plays into the fourth quarter, the outlook was bleak for the favored home team.
The Buccaneers didn’t fold. Instead, they finally put a full drive together. After a nice kick return by Allen Torres, the Bucs methodically moved the ball down the field behind several nice runs from Dakota Smith and a few timely completions by Staal. On a third-and-7 play from the 30, Staal threw the ball up for Cotter, who went up over a defender to haul it in for a touchdown.
The Bucs went for an onside kick, which Grand Ledge recovered. The Comets, however, were forced to punt after three plays, and Grand Haven again orchestrated a nice drive, going 78 yards in 11 plays, all but one of which were pass attempts by Staal. He completed 7-of-10 passes on the drive, including a 27-yard strike to Cotter, then a 10-yard scoring connection to Kroll, who got open in the left corner of the end zone.
The Bucs went for another onside kick, but Grand Ledge again covered the kick. After picking up one first down, the Comets were again forced to punt, and Grand Haven was left with just 1:03 to move the ball 87 yards for the tying score.
Staal’s next four passes were incomplete, and Grand Ledge ran out the clock to ice the victory.
“Obviously, we got excited about each score,” Staal said. “It was an emotional roller-coaster ride. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that last score.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of our kids for battling back to 21-14,” said Farley, whose team hosted a playoff game for the third consecutive year. “Give credit to (Grand Ledge). They did a great job.”
Bucs’ senior running back Smith finished with 91 yards on 20 carries. Kroll hauled in eight catches for 75 yards, while Cotter added five catches for 92 yards.
Brady finished the night 9-of-15 passing for 152 yards for the Comets. Josh Bachert was Grand Ledge’s leading rusher, picking up 51 yards on 16 attempts.
Neither team rushed for over 100 yards in the game.
“That’s a testament to Grand Haven’s defense,” Bird said. “Their defensive line is pretty good, and their linebackers are flying around.”
Staal and the rest of the Buccaneers’ outstanding senior class were slow to leave the field after Friday’s loss. The Haven signal caller said that despite the loss, the 2011 season was a resounding success for the Buccaneer varsity football team.
“A lot of people were doubting us, and didn’t think we could replace the seniors we lost,” Staal said. “I’ll always remember this team and how we proved everybody wrong.”