By Steve Gunn, Dave Hart and Mitchell Boatman
Could such a bad start mean the Big Reds might lose yet another state championship game – their fifth in the last six years?
La’darius Jefferson and the Big Reds answered that question with a emphatic “No!”
Jefferson ran for 245 yards and four touchdowns, helping the Big Reds finally reach high school football’s promised land with a 28-10 victory over Harrison at Detroit’s Ford Field.
Even better, the state championship came on Jefferson’s 18th birthday.
“This is my last year, and I didn’t want to go out a loser,” Jefferson said while speaking the media on the Ford Field turf after the game. “We went out and played a great game.
“I just dreamed about winning. I don’t care if we kicked all field goals for our points, it just feels great to win. It’s amazing. We finally won it.”
The win capped a perfect 14-0 season for Muskegon. It also ended a painful Ford Field slump for the Big Reds, who lost in the state finals in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016.
Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield, who has been criticized in the past for the state finals losses, said the past was not the focus of his team’s preparations.
“Whatever happened in the past, the last two, three or four years, doesn’t matter this year,” Fairfield said. “Our motto this year was just to win and forget about what happened last year.”
The Big Reds came into the game as a clear favorite over Harrison, which advanced to the state finals after losing three games in the regular season.
Ben Williams gave Harrison a needed boost of confidence when he fielded the opening kickoff at the 9-yard line and returned it 91 yards for a touchdown.
The extra point gave Harrison a stunning 7-0 lead before a single play was run from scrimmage.
“We worked on not kicking it to No. 19,” Fairfield said about Williams’ shocking kick return. “That was part of the plan, but we did it, he made us pay, but the kids showed some poise.
“Before we left I told them it was going to be a war, they were going to be punched, and they would have to look at themselves, see the blood, taste it, swallow it, and give it back to them.”
The Big Reds responded calmly, driving 80 yards on 13 plays to tie the game. Jefferson capped the effort with an eight-yard run and Carlos Hernandez-Sias added the extra point, tying the score 7-7.
Harrison’s David Hiser kicked a 26-yard field goal as time expired in the first quarter, giving Harrison a 10-7 edge.
The Big Reds’ offense went into a temporary slumber in the second quarter, going three-and-out and punting on its first two possessions.
One of those possession was particularly promising, starting on the Harrison 41 after Muskegon’s Te’Andre Evans stripped the ball from a Harrison runner and recovered the fumble.
But the Big Reds failed to capitalize on the opportunity.
“This was a championship football game,” Fairfield said, when asked about his offense temporarily stalling. “Three times La’darius came over to me, and I said we’re not always going to have blowouts.
“I was a little worried about how the kids would handle not being able to go out and score every time, but they handled it like a championship team.”
Jefferson ended Muskegon’s offensive sluggishness late in the second quarter.
The Big Reds fielded a punt and took over at their own 41. Jefferson took the first snap out of the shotgun formation, broke through the line and dashed 55 yards to the Hawk 14.
He broke loose for a 14-yard score on the next play, and the PAT kick gave Muskegon a 14-10 halftime lead.
Jefferson totaled 147 yards on 16 carries in the first half alone.
The Big Reds didn’t waste any time extending their lead in the second half, taking the opening kickoff and driving 78 yards on 11 plays to take a 21-10 lead.
Jefferson finished the drive, which took 5:50 off the clock, with a one-yard touchdown burst. Hernandez-Sias again added the extra point, and Muskegon led 21-10 with 6:16 left in the third quarter.
Ben Williams struck again for Harrison on the ensuing kickoff, fielding the ball at his own 18 and returning it to the Muskegon 26.
But the Big Red defense made a huge stand, forcing the Hawks to punt three plays later and waste Williams’ huge return.
The big play on the defensive stand came from Muskegon’s Eli Jackson, who sacked Harrison quarterback Noah Hendricks for an 11-yard loss, from the Muskegon 25 back to the 36.
Overall the Muskegon defense held Harrison to 114 total yards of offense, including 61 on the ground and 53 through the air.
“I am so proud of my defensive guys,” said Jackson, a senior who finished the game with six tackles, including two quarterback sacks. “I believe we had the best defense in the state because we worked for it.”
The Big Reds’ added some crucial insurance points in the fourth quarter with a four-play, 63-yard touchdown drive.
Davion McCall set up the score with a 46-yard run, which left the ball at the Harrison 27. Jefferson scored three plays later from three yards out for his fourth touchdown of the night.
The extra point gave the Big Reds their final lead with 7:36 left in the game.
The Big Reds amassed 363 yards of total offense – all on the ground. Jefferson gained most of that himself, with the help of Muskegon’s huge offensive line.
“It’s his birthday,” Fairfield said about Jefferson. “I forgot to sing him happy birthday. What a great way for him to go out.
“We were getting four or five yards a pop, so you stick with what’s working. The offensive line and La’darius led us to victory.”
McCall finished with 50 yards on three carries. Clinton Jefferson Jr. had 38 yards on six carries.
Evans and Willie Shanks each had six tackles for the Big Reds. Billie Roberts and Romel Beasley each had one quarterback sack.