The Saginaw Nouvel (13-0) football team is known for its high powered offense, however, a second half shutout by the Panther defense is what ultimately vaulted coach Mike Boyd and his team into the 2017 MHSAA division-8 state championship game following a 17-14 semi-final victory over Iron River West Iron County H.S. (11-2) inside the Superior Dome at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, MI Friday night.
“Our defense just stiffened and started to make some plays, Boyd said. “Our linebackers started to make better reads, our interior started to make better reads. What (Iron River) had going in the first half, coach (Mike Berutti) would probably agree, we kind of took away from them in the second half. We did just enough offensively to hang in there and win, but the defense is the story of the game.”
Iron River took an early lead when QB Neil Tomasoski hit Caden Pellizzer for a 37 yard passing touchdown after an NCC defender had lost his footing and tripped, while Tomasoski pulled double-duty, kicking the extra point for a 7-0 Wycon lead with 8:49 left in the first quarter.
Nouvel answered with a nice ball control drive, which culminated with a bit of Panther good fortune on a 5-yard touchdown run by QB Tate Hausbeck, who had found himself in the right place at the right time, picking up a fumble, before finding daylight and racing into the end zone for the score, as place kicker Jacob Burr split the uprights for the extra point to tie the game (7-7) with 4:47 left in the opening quarter.
The Panther defense came up with a huge stop with its back up against a wall when sophomore Zaiden Mitchell intercepted a Tomasoski pass at the NCC 14-yard line with just over 6 minutes left in the half, however, Iron River forced an NCC punt and the Wykon offense managed to easily march down the field, scoring on a 2 yard rushing TD by Jayce Brockhagen as Tomasoski's extra point was good for a 14-7 lead with 3:14 left in the second quarter.
NCC responded with 1:02 left in the second quarter when Hausbeck found a wide open Kenny Kujawa for a 12 yard touchdown and Burr's kick tied the game (14-14) heading into halftime.
Despite Kujawa's TD catch to tie the game prior to halftime, Iron River seemed to be the team in control and executing its first half game plan of keeping the ball out of Hausbeck's hands by bringing lots of pressure and limiting runs with an effective pass rush, while NCC struggled to get any kind of sustainable first half offense through the air or on the ground.
“We had a really hard time with them up front,” Boyd admitted. “Whether it was in the run game or in the pass game when they put some pressure on. You know, we had a couple drops, but really we felt like they eliminated our run game. We thought coming in, even though we can throw the ball, we needed to run the ball and like I say, we maybe ran it enough, but we weren't getting much after the initial yards. It just didn't seem like we had the ball that much, couldn't get any flow.”
Kujawa set the tone for the second half when he electrified the Nouvel sidelines, returning the second half kickoff 80-yards and nearly scoring while diving for the pylon, but was ruled out of bounds just short of the goal line, setting his team up on first and goal from the 1-yard line.
However, the Wycons managed to stop NCC on the next 3 plays, bringing up fourth and goal from the 3 yard line, setting the stage for Burr's first career field goal, a successful 20-yard kick which was the difference in the game, giving Nouvel a 17-14 lead it would not relinquish with 10:02 left in the third quarter, as the NCC second half defensive adjustments dominated the remainder of the game.
“I think what our defense did was start to read their keys better,” added Boyd. “We were getting so caught up in looking at backs when we had told them to key the guards (pulling linemen) so once they really settled into reading linemen, I mean, then that put us in a position to make some plays.”
Hausbeck led the Nouvel offense with 2-TD's and 128-total yards, completing 8 of 21 passes for 69-passing yards with 1-TD pass, while adding 12 carries for 59 rushing yards and 1 rushing TD.
Kujawa had the 80-yard kick returned down to the 1-yard line, along with a 12-yard TD catch.
Sophomore WR Sam Buckingham led all receivers with 3-catches for 40-yards, while senior Peter Snyder had 3-catches for 24-yards, followed by senior Isaiah Rosales, who had 1 catch for 3-yards.
Junior RB Josh Kuligowski had 8-carries for 33-yards, while brother Justin Kuligowski added 3-carries for 19-yards.
Nouvel will take on the winner of Saturday's 1 pm semi-final between Ottawa Lake-Whiteford H.S. and Mendon H.S. at 10 am on Friday Nov. 24, in the 2017 MHSAA division-8 state championship game at Ford Field in downtown Detroit.