By Ron Rop
Local Sports Journal
KENTWOOD – The Muskegon Big Reds battled two formidable foes on Saturday afternoon and came away victorious.
In a cold, blustery, and at times, snowy afternoon, the Big Reds survived its Division 2 semifinal game with a 41-35 victory over the Portage Central Mustangs.
The game was played at East Kentwood.
The outcome means Muskegon is heading to the state championship game at 1 p.m. Friday against Birmingham Brother Rice, a 43-20 winner of Detroit Martin Luther King. It’s a rematch of last year’s title game, which Brother Rice won.
“I can’t even talk,” Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield said. “Coldest game I’ve ever been a part of in my 26 years of coaching football.
“These kids to play in these kinds of conditions, holy cow, I am proud of them,” Fairfield said. “I guess they just wanted to play indoors next week.”
Not only did the weather present the Big Reds with a challenge, but the Mustangs, which came into the game with a 12-0 record, gave Muskegon all it could handle.
The Big Reds led 14-0 early, 28-20 at the half, fell behind 35-34 with 10 minutes remaining and won it with a Deshaun Thrower 2-yard touchdown run with 58 seconds remaining.
That right there made the game an instant classic.
And with the clocking ticking down, the Big Reds, trailing 35-34, got the ball 57 yards away from the end zone with three minutes to play. Thrower ran for 22 yards and Javauntae Thomas added eight more. Thrower rushed for seven then Thomas had runs of five and nine yards. After two plays from the one pushed the Big Reds back a yard, Thrower scooted into the end zone for a touchdown with 58 seconds remaining. Adrian Briseno added the extra point and Muskegon had the lead for good.
The drive was the culmination of a day dominated by weather, fumbles, great defensive plays and some explosive offensive plays.
It appeared in the early going, it might be a cake walk for the Big Reds, which needed just 7:46 to score a pair of touchdowns.
Muskegon took the opening drive and moved 64 yards on five plays. Tavon Jackson scored from 46 yards out by dashing down the left sideline and into the end zone. Muskegon led 7-0 just 5:07 into the game.
On Portage Central’s first drive, Mustang standout Jerrod Davis took a heavy hit by Caleb Washington and the fumble was recovered by Kenny Finley.
Six plays later, the Big Reds were in the end zone again, this time Jackson was handed the ball on a misdirection play and scored from 11 yards out.
Briseno’s extra point made it 14-0.
Another easy afternoon for the Big Reds?
Not a chance.
Mustang quarterback Mickey Losey found a wide open Max Ryan for a 65-yard touchdown pass then after a Big Red fumble deep in their own end, Losey scored from 9 yards out. In the span of 45 seconds, it was 14-14.
Muskegon wasted little regaining the lead. An 80-yard drive consumed more than 9 minutes and culminated on a 12-yard touchdown run by Thomas, who finished with 23 rushes for 142 yards.
The wildness continued as Davis took the ensuing kickoff and ran 62 yards down to the Muskegon 31. A 15-yard penalty put it at the 13. Three plays later, Davis bolted into the end zone from 6 yards out. The kick was no good and Muskegon led 21-20.
Working with the wind, Muskegon started its next drive at the 43. Thomas had runs of 45 and 8 yards before Thrower scored from 6 yards out.
All that scoring in the game’s first 22 minutes.
Muskegon took that 28-20 lead into the half.
The Mustangs had the wind in the third quarter and used it to gain some field position. A Big Red punt was downed at the 36 and that gave Portage Central a short field to work with. It did take 11 plays to cover those 36 yards, but in the end, it was Losey who scored from 1 yard out. Davis ran in for the two-point conversion and the Mustangs had tied the game at 28-all.
Muskegon appeared set to break the tie early in the fourth quarter, but a fourth down play from the Mustang 5 resulted in no game and the ball was lost on downs.
However, two plays into their drive, the Mustangs fumbled and Muskegon junior Taran Smith recovered at the 10. Thomas had a 9-yard run when it appeared he was stopped for no gain at the 10. Two plays later, Thrower pushed his way into the end zone and Muskegon was back on top 34-28.
Davis, who played the game banged up, used his speed to rumble 80 yards for a touchdown and Muskegon’s lead had last just 13 seconds. Losey’s extra point gave the Mustangs its first, and only, lead of the game at 35-34.
Then the game showed its wild side just like it had in the first half.
Portage, kicking into the wind, lofted an onside kick that was bouncing around, but hadn’t gone the required 10 yards. As both teams were watching the bouncing ball, it reached the 50 and Ryan pounced on it for the Mustangs.
That drive produced no points and a punt that was downed at the 14. Muskegon couldn’t move the ball, but a Thrower punt of 64 yards put the Mustangs deep in their own end of the field (wind in their faces).
Davis took a punishing hit from William Hunt and the ball squirted loose. Muskegon was in business at the Mustang 10.
But, on the first play from scrimmage, Thomas had running room and as he approached the goal line, the ball came out and Hunter Lassiter recovered for Portage Central.
A three-and-out and a punt gave Muskegon the ball at its own 43 with 3 minutes remaining.
Thrower’s first down run of 22 yards got to the Portage Central 35. Thomas produced 22 yards on three rushes and Muskegon was down to the 1. After a loss of a yard, Thrower scored from 2 yards out on third down. Briseno’s extra point made it 41-35 with just 58 seconds remaining.
“As long as there is time in the clock and air in our body, we go fight,” Fairfield said.
Two incomplete passes and two sacks on the Mustangs’ final drive gave the ball back to Muskegon and the clock ran out.
“It was a big one,” Finley said. “We thought we had them, but we got lax and they started scoring. It took heart … right here … and we just finished it.”
Thrower finished with 23 rushes for 131 yards and Jackson ran four times for 80 yards. Muskegon did not have any yards through the air.
“I have to give them a lot of props,” Thrower said. “They gave us a great game. We knew they weren’t going to back down.”
Davis led the Mustangs with 18 rushes for 143 yards. Losey had 22 carries for 30 yards.
Alezay Coleman led the Big Red defense with 11 tackles. Hunt had nine and Finley had eight.
“I owe it to the defense because we know how good they are up front,” Fairfield said. “We put in two different fronts, we went with an even front and then went with our 4-4, or our wicked front. The kids came to me on those last two drives and said, ‘coach, let’s go back to wicked, they can’t stop it.’ So I trusted them and Will Hunt, I give the defense and those kids … they deserved the win today. I don’t know if I out-coached myself or what.
“God bless Will Hunt and them for convincing me to switch back to the wicked front and that’s the different in the second half,” Fairfield said. “That defense in the fourth quarter was them believing in themselves.”
The Mustangs played without starting quarterback Ryan Mergener and running back Jacob Allan. Both players were injured in last week’s regional title game against Farmington Hills Harrison.