The Saginaw Nouvel Catholic Central
(6-3) varsity football team punched its ticket for the 2018 Michigan High School Athletic Association division 8 playoffs with a decisive 26-13 victory over Birch Run (5-4) high school in a Tri Valley Conference crossover matchup between a pair of 5-win teams on the playoff bubble, as Nouvel players honored friends and family who've battled cancer by wearing special jerseys in the annual "Game To Remember"
at Boyd Field in Saginaw Township tonight.
After forcing an NCC three-and-out on the very first drive of the game, Birch Run went to work with a ground-and-pound, ball-control drive behind senior running back Logan Turner, before fellow senior RB Trent Naragon broke free for 24 yards, rushing down to the Nouvel 3-yard line, which set up a 3 yard rushing touchdown by junior co-captain Chase Gruno, while senior place kicker Nolan Bovee split the uprights on the extra point kick for a 7-0 Birch Run lead with 6:57 left in the first quarter.
Midway through the opening quarter, Birch Run had taken over on its own 28-yard line when Turner broke off a 43-yard run down to the Nouvel 29-yard line, before finding pay-dirt on the very next play with a 29-yard TD scamper, but the extra point kick missed, as Birch Run extended its lead to 13-0 with 5:02 left in the first quarter.
On second-and-thirteen from its own 17-yard line, Nouvel senior quarterback Michael Ehlman hit junior wideout Samuel Buckingham for a 28-yard pass completion to the NCC 45-yard line, before the dynamic duo hooked up again on the very next play from scrimmage when Ehlman aired it out to Buckingham for a 55-yard touchdown pass with just :08 seconds left in the first quarter, as NCC sophomore place kicker Brady Alverson split the uprights on the extra point kick, cutting the Birch Run lead to 13-7 as the first quarter came to an end.
The momentum started to shift early in the second quarter after Birch Run had driven deep into Nouvel territory when the shotgun snap sailed over the head of Birch Run senior QB Chase Gibson at exactly the same moment the NCC defense was bringing an all out blitz led by NCC sophomore linebacker Josh Siler, who was first in the backfield, scooping up the loose ball just past midfield and racing 45 yards for a defensive touchdown, while Alverson nailed the extra point for a 14-13 Nouvel lead with 9:34 remaining in the first half.
Another big defensive turnover would give Nouvel the ball back when NCC senior Josh Kuligowski intercepted Gibson's pass near midfield, which eventually led to Ehlman finding NCC junior wideout Zaiden Mitchell for a 25-yard touchdown pass with 4:22 left in the second quarter, however, Alverson's extra point kick was blocked, as Nouvel would settle for a 20-13 lead heading into halftime.
Shortly after the second half kickoff, Buckingham recovered another Birch Run fumble, giving NCC possession of the ball, before Nouvel sophomore RB Ashton Wright rushed 10 yards down to the Birch Run 6-yard line, setting up a 6-yard TD run by Kuligowski, but the 2-point conversion attempt failed, as Nouvel opened up a 26-13 lead with 4:02 to play in the third quarter.
Turner was the engine powering the Birch Run offensive machine tonight, carrying the ball 29 times for an impressive 190 rushing yards, adding 1 rushing TD, followed by Naragon, who had 8 carries for 37 rushing yards, and Gruno with 6 carries for 26 yards, including 1 rushing TD as well.
Birch Run senior Hunter Patrick replaced Gibson at quarterback, adding 3 carries for 9 rushing yards, completing 1 of 5 passes for 23 yards to senior co-captain Brockton Cook, while junior speedster Jacoby Rodriguez chipped in with 2 carries for 5 rushing yards, adding 90 yards on 4 kick returns for Birch Run on special teams.
Senior co-captain Mark Niedecken paced the Birch Run defense with 7 total tackles, followed by Cook (5 tackles), Gruno (4 tackles), while Naragon; along with senior Jacob Cornman and junior Ty Tanner each finished with 3 tackles apiece respectively.
Birch Run junior A.J. Polley and sophomore Briggson Cook (the younger brother of Brockton) each finished with 2 tackles apiece, followed by senior co-captain Evan Parrish, Gibson, Rodriguez, and junior Dylan Gage; who followed with 1 tackle each, along with assists from junior Terrance Watson and Patrick to round out the Birch Run defense.
Ehlman did all of his damage through the air, completing 8 of 15 passes for 155 yards and throwing for 2 TD's, while Buckingham led all receivers with 6 catches for 119 receiving yards with 1 TD reception, followed by Mitchell, whose 1 reception went for a 25-yard touchdown.
Kuligowski finished with 13 carries for 41 rushing yards with 1 rushing TD, adding 1 reception for 12 yards, along with a key interception on defense, while Ashton Wright had 2 carries for 11 rushing yards.
Nouvel sophomore Darron Chinery was an absolute monster with a breakout performance, leading the NCC defense with 10.5 total tackles, followed by fellow 'super-sophomores' Alverson (3.5 total tackles) and Siler (7 tackles) who also recovered the fumble, which he returned for a touchdown, shifting the momentum in favor of Nouvel.
NCC senior's Jonah Wright (5.5 total tackles), Jimmy Benkert (3.5 total tackles), Andrew Albers (2 tackles) and Kuligowski (2 tackles) were all key to Nouvel's defensive success, while junior's John Paul LeFevre (4.5 total tackles), Mitchell (3 tackles), Buckingham (2 tackles and a fumble recovery), and Jordan Serrato (1 tackle) would round out the NCC defense. Sophomore Clemente Wendt also assisted on a tackle after battling in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
Birch Run (who remains on the playoff bubble with 5 wins) will have to wait until selection Sunday on Oct 21, to find out if they qualify for the post season as an 'at-large' bid, while Nouvel has officially qualified for the playoffs with a 6-3 record and is expected to begin the 2018 MHSAA post-season on the road, however, NCC will likely also have to wait until Sunday to find out its first round playoff opponent as well.
VIDEO of the Nouvel CC marching band performing prior to the Pinconning game last week: