Despite outplaying the Spartans for much of the contest, Rockford's mistakes kept things relatively close.
Rockford's initial drive combined tough, cloud-of-dust rushing with timely passes to move the chains. Facing third-and-3 from the Stevenson 8-yardline, Rockford burned an early timeout. The pause did the trick and running back Ryan Cochran burst into the endzone, culminating a 13-play, 68-yard drive.
Stevenson's first drive, on the other hand, went nowhere. A false start penalty pushed the Spartans back 5 yards and the drive fizzled.
Rockford's Drew Maroe took the ensuing punt back 59 yards into Stevenson's redzone. On the next play, Cochran hit paydirt again with a 9-yard touchdown run, putting the Rams up 14-0 in what appeared to be the makings of a blowout.
Stevenson's weapon of choice, Austin White, had difficulty shaking loose the Rockford defense, who swarmed to the ball with multiple players on nearly every run.
"We slowed their No. 23 (Austin White) down," Rockford head coach Ralph Munger said after the game. "And late in the game, our kids were just relentless on defense. I thought out coverage for the day was pretty good."
Misfires Keep it Close
But special teams kept the game from getting away from the Spartans. A blocked punt late in the first quarter set Stevenson up with a short field on Rockford's 19-yardline. After a Rockford pass interference on third down, running back Wade Stahl scored from six yards out. After a missed extra point, the Rockford lead was cut to 14-6.
Rockford helped Stevenson again on the following kickoff, turning the ball over on a fumble. Another pass interference put the Spartans back into the redzone and quarterback Jacob Gudeman snuck it in, and after an extra point, Stevenson pulled to within one, 14-13.
Yet another Rockford miscue (a second fumble) put Stevenson's offense back on the field with a chance to take the lead.
Rams Buck Up
But the Rockford defense stiffened, forcing Stevenson to punt after a quick three-and-out, giving the Rams the ball at midfield.
"Just keep playing, baby," Munger said when asked about bouncing back after mistakes. "Just keep playing."
Rockford capitalized on the short field, scoring 3 points on a 39-yard field goal from Paul Mudgett for a 17-13 lead.
With three minutes to go in the half, Rockford intercepted a downfield Gudeman pass and set up shop, again, at midfield. A bubble screen to Maroe moved the ball to the Stevenson 25-yardline. From there, the Rams pounded the ball on the ground until Alex Rojas ran it in from 10-yards out. At the half, Rockford led 24-13.
Rockford's offense kept control of the game in the second half. The Rams marched their opening possession to a 33-yard Mudgett field goal, mixing a rough and tumble running attack with screens and quick passes, taking a 27-13 lead.
On defense, Rockford's linebackers -- notably Josh Osbun, Chad VanderWest and Alex Axdorff -- wrecked havoc as they walled in the Stevenson running game and swatted numerous passes in coverage.
In the end, Rockford was just too much for the Spartans and earned their invite to Ford Field for all the marbles.
"We're excited about next week," Munger said, "and all the particulars that go into that.