By David Tomczak
Local Sports Journal

In a game where both offenses were on display early, it was Muskegon’s defense that took control of Friday’s season opener.

After early possessions by the Big Reds and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, it looked like it was going to be a game in which the team holding the ball last would win the game.

Muskegon quarterback Jalen Smith looks for running room to the outside in Friday night’s game against Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. Photo by J.D. Scott

But Muskegon’s defense shut down the Eaglets’ dual threat in a 21-14 victory at Hackley Stadium.
The Big Reds held the ball for the game’s first 6:46, used 13 plays, went 80 yards and took a 7-0 lead on John King’s 2-yard run.

“We had a lot of practice and prepared well for this game,” said King, who accounted for 20 yards rushing on the drive.

Orchard Lake St. Mary’s responded with an eight-play drive that chewed up 4:16 off the clock. OL scored on an 11-yard TD pass from Matt Linehan to Parker McInnis.

Both offenses stalled after that, however, as the Big Reds, and penalties kept the Eaglets out of the end zone.

Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, the defending Division 3 state champs, looked as if it would take a 14-7 lead into halftime after defensive tackle Austin Johnson returned an interception 48 yards for a score. But an illegal block on the return brought the ball to the Muskegon 29. It was one of the Eaglets’ seven first-half penalties.

The Big Reds held St. Mary’s on a 4-and-7 to end the drive and the teams went to halftime tied at 7-all.

At the break, Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield challenged his team to step it up.

“I talked to the defense and said the true character of our team will be how we stop (St. Mary’s) on the opening drive (of the second half),” Fairfield said. “And the kids accepted the challenge.”

After forcing the Eaglets to punt, Muskegon put together a 7-play drive, helped by a facemask penalty, and King scored again, this time from 2 yards out.

The Big Reds’ John Hall added the 2-point conversion for a 15-7 lead with 7:48 left in the third.

Orchard Lake wouldn’t challenge the Big Reds the rest of the game and punted on its next four possessions.

“We planned on (St. Mary’s) running the ball, that’s what we practiced for,” Fairfield said. “All summer we heard about how they had the best 1-2 punch at running back in the state and they came out in the spread. You have to credit our defensive backs, they earned the game ball.”

Muskegon’s defense, led by Ronald Jenkins with seven tackles, allowed only two first downs to the Eaglets in the second half before the final drive.

And after punter Sherman Hodges pinned St. Mary’s at their own 13 with 37 seconds left, the defense put the game away.

With Linehan scrambling to avoid the rush, the Big Reds’ Kenneth Finely hit him at the 2, knocking the ball into the end zone, where Javontae Langston fell on it for a 21-7 lead.

“Finely’s just a beast,” Fairfield said. “(Linehan) is a tall, rangy kid and we knew if he got out of the pocket, he could put some zip on it.”

The Eaglets scored on a 24-yard TD pass as time expired for the final score.

Muskegon finished with 48 carries for 354 yards, led by Marcus Smith with 11 carries for 103 yards. King added 88 yards on 19 carries and Jalen Smith had 66 on 15 carries.

“Our defense had a good game,” said King, a senior. “We told our defense, ‘keep stopping them and we’ll take care of them.’”

Orchard Lake finished with 223 total yards and were limited to 74 rushing yards on 23 carries.