CHAMPAIGN — The opportunities for Byron were there.

At the tail end of the first half; midway through the third quarter; with just under eight minutes left in the game; and again with about four minutes to play.

The Byron Tigers had numerous chances to steal a win during Friday’s Class 3A state championship game, but they just couldn’t find a way to close it out. Instead, it was Monticello which celebrated a 24-20 victory — and the completion of an undefeated season — as Byron exited Memorial Stadium as state runner-up.

A lucky bounce on a Sages’ field-goal attempt; a failed attempt on fourth-and-an-inch; a dropped interception; and then a Monticello pick to ice it, and that was it.

“I just think Monticello is a great team,” Byron head coach Jeff Boyer said. “I also think we’re a great team, but they happened to come out on top tonight. Obviously we were playing someone, well, they’re the best in the state, and they did a great job of stopping us.”

There was only one close game all season for either squad, but with everything on the line and in a tightly matched state final, it was the Sages, not the Tigers, who stepped up down the stretch.

“It was very different,” said wingback Drake Snodgrass, “from what we’ve known all season.”

Monticello (14-0) broke away first, on a 3A-state-title-game, record-breaker by Alek Bundy. The senior running back took an early-second-quarter short screen pass from Braden Snyder, got to the edge, hugged the sideline, and darted 95 yards for a score.

“That was really big for them,” Boyer said. “I felt in that first half, we played great defensively — beside that one big play there. We knew we were going to get screened here tonight, and we worked a lot on it. They just caught us on that one.”

Byron (13-1) answered with a methodical six-play, 83-yard drive, with Snodgrass and Isaac Stickler each breaking off big runs of 16 yards during the possession. The Tigers then opened the second half with a nine-play, 50-yard drive to take a 14-10 lead.

But Monticello, with senior running back Alek Bundy (52 yards and a TD rushing, and 136 yards and two TDs receiving) making Tiger defenders miss regularly, scored on back-to-back, second-half possessions to take a 24-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Snodgrass dove in from one yard out midway through the fourth, but a blocked extra point kept the Sages’ lead at four. Byron missed out on an interception that went through the defenders’ hands late, and the Tigers missed out on a fourth-down try twice in a row down the stretch, dooming them in the end.

“That just can’t happen,” Boyer said of Byron’s 2-for-6 effort on fourth downs. “I know we picked up some fourth downs, but when we’re in fourth-and-one, we expect to get it. Give credit to their defense. They made sure we didn’t.”

The Tigers pounced on a fumble with 4:01 left in the game, getting one more shot at a state-title comeback. But Stickler took a pitch and lofted a pass to Snodgrass with just over two minutes left, and Bundy snatched it out of the air, stealing an interception just as Snodgrass was going to haul it in around the Sages’ 23-yard line.

“It was just too many mistakes to overcome,” Boyer said. “To be state runners-up, though, that’s a huge accomplishment.”

Led by Stickler (23 rushes for 139 yards) Byron outgained Monticello 372 yards to 354, with 307 on the ground, allowing only 141 to the Sages’ rushing attack. But Byron also gave the ball up a season-high four times on downs. Monticello QB Braden Snyder was 12-for-21 for 213 yards with a pair of TDs, with Bundy hauling in four catches for 136 yards, and rushing for 52 more.

Jay Taft: 815-987-1384; jtaft@rrstar.com; @JayTaft