River Rouge was big, but Grand Rapids West Catholic was experienced with two straight Division 5 football titles.
West Catholic prevailed, 40-34, despite going against an offensive line that went 280, 290, 300, 340 and 350 in front of elusive quarterback Antoine Burgess (13 of 19, 354 yards, three TDs) for a three-peat.
The Falcons’ run game (363 yards) and the Panthers’ mistakes proved to be the difference.
“We had a small senior class and I think a lot of people doubted this group,” said West Catholic coach Dan Rohn. “This means a lot. We’re a small school trying to get kids come to our school. This helps a lot.
“We got off to a 1-2 start. We got blown out by a good Forest Hills Eastern team.”
David Fox had 152 yards on 10 carries for the Falcons and three TDs. Gaetano Vallone rushed 19 times for 115 yards even though he was slowed by an ankle injury, and Denny Alt had 79 yards on 13 carries.
“It feels great; to be able to come to West Catholic,” said Fox, who was replaced by Vallone as the team’s quarterback after he hurt his shoulder. “Ever since my freshman year we’ve been able to come to Ford Field. This is my third ring and we’re hoping for another one.”
West Catholic stunned the Panthers with a 64-yard TD run by Fox, bursting up the middle and out-racing the River Rouge secondary with 44 seconds left in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.
Rouge got a 43-yard pass from Burgess to Aaron Vinson to get the offense in scoring position.
Burgess’ passing yards were the second most in finals history.
“We were playing West Catholic,” said Panthers Coach Corey Parker of the team’s slow start. “I don’t discredit what we were doing, but they were doing an awesome job creating some issues up front that we couldn’t go deep down the field in our passing game. We had to make some blocking adjustments. Once we did that we were able to create some time for Antoine.”
Burgess hit Ashawnti Howard for an 11-yard score with 8:51 left in the half, but failed on the two-point conversion.
Fox burned the Panthers with another long run, sprinting 38-yards for his second TD with 2:33 left in the first half to make it 14-6.
Burgess completed a 41-yard pass to Giavonni Turner to set up another possible score, but two plays later was intercepted by Connor Bolthouse with 27 seconds left in the half to end the threat.
By halftime, Fox had already lit up the Panthers’ defense for 106 yards on just four carries.
The Falcons (12-2) didn’t miss a beat to start the second half, getting a 53-yard run from Gaetano Vallone to the Rouge 12.
Fox literally walked in from there just 16 seconds into the third quarter to make it 21-6.
Burgess finally struck gold when he hit Vinson in stride for a 63-yard TD pass with 3:56 left in the third. He hit Turner for the two-point conversion pass and the Panthers (12-2) were on the prowl, down just seven.
West Catholic responded with a 9-yard TD pass from Vallone to Aaron Hall with 14 seconds left in the third to make it 28-14.
Still firing, Burgess hit Howard with a 51-yarder to the 1-yard line, where Burgess scored two plays later with 10:54 to play.
Succumbing to a fake punt, River Rouge still had a chance to get back into the game, but a West Catholic punt to the Panthers’ 2 was followed by a fumbled snap by Burress. He was tackled in the end zone for a safety, making it a nine-point game with just 7:15 left.
West Catholic got a 31-yard field goal from Liam Putz to extend the lead to 33-21.
“That was a big sequence,” said Parker.
Burgess kept going deep using just 37 seconds to go 65 yards and throwing a 23-yard TD pass to Turner with 3:36 left.
“My thing was to keep fighting,” said Burgess. “Every time we got the ball back I said let’s score.”
Said Parker: “My guys fought and fought. That’s our mantra.”
Contact Perry A. Farrell: 313-222-2555 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @farrellperry.