For the first two-and-a-half quarters of Saturday’s Division 1 Regional final football game at Belleville, Northville’s gritty, fearless, home-grown squad played toe-to-toe with the 22nd-ranked team in the United States.
At one point early in the third quarter, the Tigers’ body language suggested a sure-thing victory was not a given on this sunny, chilly fall day — the result of a huge three-and-out stop by the Mustangs’ defense that put them one efficient drive away from deadlocking the score against a team that handled them 42-0 three weeks earlier.
Ultimately, the slightly bigger, slightly faster and slightly stronger Tigers broke open a 14-7 second-half lead to win 49-7, but the final score didn’t even put a small dent in what the Mustangs accomplished during their record-setting season.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this team today,” said first-year Northville Head Coach Brent Luplow. “All we asked them all week leading up to this game was to play fearless and give everything they had, and they did that.”
Northville finished with a program record-tying 10 wins — with its only two losses coming to Belleville, which many people who follow high school football closely expect to win its third consecutive state title in November.
“Like I said in the (post-game) huddle, this team will never be forgotten in Northville football history and never be forgotten in Northville history,” Luplow said.
“They’ve done things no other Northville team has done. They’ve set a precedent and are leaving a legacy that won’t be forgotten.”
Tigers lead early
Belleville jumped ahead 7-0 mid-way through the first quarter on a 22-yard touchdown pass from Bryce Underwood to Marquis Peoples (Brayden Lane tacked on the first of his six extra points).
Northville mounted a promising drive on the ensuing possession, but a fumble at the Belleville 31 was scooped up by Jalen Johnson, who sprinted 69 yards to score and double the hosts’ lead to 14-0.
Undaunted, the Mustangs marched to the Belleville 24 on their next possession, but their second lost fumble of the day gave the ball back to the Tigers.
After the teams’ traded possessions, Northville put together a thrilling scoring drive just before halftime.
It was kick-started when punter Sonny Rentz threw a fourth-and-11 fake-punt pass down the home team sideline.
It was broken up by a Tiger defender, but Belleville was called for pass interference.
Facing a fourth-and-11 from the Tigers 44, senior quarterback Isaac Pace connected with Colin Charles for a 15-yard gain, giving the Mustangs a first down.
Four plays later, with the ball at Belleville 2 and the Mustangs lined up as if to attempt a tush-push quarterback sneak, Pace instead stepped back and threw a dime to well-covered Cole Attanasio, who secured the ball in the back of the end zone with 2:10 left in the half.
Rentz’s extra point made it 14-7 and the visiting underdogs were just one score away from Belleville, which entered the game outscoring their opponents 535-67.
“Everybody was fired up, excited in the locker room during halftime,” Luplow said. “You could kind of tell we had them off their game a little bit.
“We had to kick off to them to start the second half. We knew if we could get a stop, we’d be in a great spot.”
The Mustangs got the stop and took over at their own 48 following Brayden Lane’s punt.
However, a 10-yard sack of Pace on a second-and-10 play led to a failed fourth-and-15 attempt near midfield, giving the ball back to the Tigers with 6:01 left in third.
Underwood takes over
Underwood, who is regarded as one of the top junior quarterbacks in the country, found his rhythm from that point forward, piling on a 4-yard touchdown run and two touchdown passes (to Kevin Simes and Adrian Walker Jr) in an eight-minute span to give Belleville an insurmountable 42-7 lead.
Following Luplow’s post-game speech to the team, the players shared hugs with teammates and coaches — the seniors understandably emotional knowing they’d never step on a football field again with friends they’ve been battling with since elementary school.
“It’s always tough knowing you’ve played your last football game,” Luplow said. “They’ve built such an amazing bond and brotherhood with their teammates … it’s something that stays with you for a while.”
When asked how community-based football programs like Northville can catch up to open-district programs whose rosters include stud players from surrounding communities, Luplow smiled and softly shook his head.
“It’s not imposssible, but …” he said. “Of the eight schools still alive going into this weekend, we’re probably the only one that doesn’t have several players who will be playing for D1 schools like Michigan and MAC schools.
“But that’s what makes this team so special. We got this far with a bunch of guys who grew up together, played together since their flag football days, grew up in the same neighborhood. That’s what makes what we accomplished this season so impressive.
Ed Wright can be reached at 734-664-4657 or email@example.com.