By Mitchell Boatman
KENTWOOD – It wasn’t as pretty or dominant as most of their wins this year, but the Muskegon Big Reds outlasted a serious challenge from DeWitt to come away with a 28-21 victory in a Division 3 state semifinal game at East Kentwood High School on Saturday.
The Big Reds found themselves in unfamiliar territory — tied in the fourth quarter at 21-21.
With under six minutes to play and the ball on their own 7-yard line, Muskegon embarked on an 83-yard scoring drive, led once again by their go-to guy, senior quarterback Cameron Martinez.
The Ohio State commit delivered the biggest play of the season so far on fourth down with just 2:24 to play. After a time out, the Panther defense crowded the line, expecting an inside run. Martinez instead bolted for the right sideline and dashed 20 yards for the game-clinching score with 2:18 to play.
“I saw that everyone was packed to the inside,” said Martinez, who finished with an amazing 417 combined yards running and passing. “That’s where we were supposed to go, to the inside. Nobody was on the outside, so I was able to take it. It was wide open and we were able to score.”
“We told them the season was laying on that fourth down,” said Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield. “We put it in (Martinez’s) hands, he’s the one that’s got us this far. He trusted his gut. He’s a warrior of a player, and I don’t think anyone was going to stop him on that play.”
DeWitt didn’t give in after the score, advancing to the Muskegon 27-yard-line with 40 seconds to play. Facing a fourth-and-five with the season on the line, the Panthers dropped back to pass. Muskegon sent a blitz and forced a hurried throw out of bounds to seal the win.
The player bringing the pressure on that fourth down stop was none other than Martinez, who was playing his first defense snap of the year.
“That was a (defensive) package we put in the whole week,” Martinez said. “Coach surprised me when he put it in. It was kind of just me spying on the quarterback, and I was able to get a shot on him.”
Despite the close call, Fairfield said he’s glad the team found itself in a battle Saturday.
“Most definitely,” he said. “You need that going in (to a state final). We have to understand that we can win the close ones. Two minutes to go, they have the ball, we need a stop. That was a great lesson for us. We can’t practice that in practice.”
The win gives Muskegon (13-0) its seventh state finals berth in the last eight years and a fourth straight trip to Detroit’s Ford Field. The Big Reds will face off against River Rouge in the state final game on Saturday, Nov. 30, at 7:30 p.m.
Dewitt finished the season at 10-3. And here’s an interesting fact – each of the last three seasons, the team to beat DeWitt in the playoffs went on to win the state championship, including Muskegon in 2017.
In the first quarter, it appeared Muskegon might be headed for another big win. On the third play of the game, Martinez connected with Amari Crowley deep downfield for an 80-yard touchdown pass and the Big Reds led 7-0.
Muskegon’s defense forced a punt on DeWitt’s first drive. The Big Reds then went three-and-out and had a punt blocked, setting the Panthers up at the Muskegon 35-yard line. The defense held firm once again, as Tyreese Oakes intercepted Panther quarterback Andrew Schorfhaar.
Muskegon drove down the field for another score, this one a 19-yard scamper by Martinez, to make it 14-0 with 39 seconds left in the opening quarter.
The second quarter saw a momentum shift, with DeWitt rallying to tie the game. The Panthers got on the board on a 26-yard pass from Schorfhaar to Tommy McIntosh, who wrestled a jump ball away from Muskegon defender Myles Walton with 8:41 left before halftime.
The Big Reds stalled on their next drive and lined up to punt. The DeWitt rush once again got home as the Panthers blocked the kick and recovered at the Muskegon 26.
“We work on it more than anybody,” Fairfield said of his team’s punting struggles. “We practice it every day. We rush every day. Trust me, that’s something we’ll do every single day again this week.”
Eight plays later, Brock Yabs punched in a 1-yard run to tie the score with 2:17 remaining in the half.
Muskegon moved into Panther territory before the quarter ended, but Martinez was intercepted by Luke Bresser on the final play of the first half.
DeWitt received the ball to start the second half, but the Big Red defense once again held strong to force a punt. On the ensuing possession, Martinez found the end zone on a 1-yard run to put Muskegon up 21-14.
On DeWitt’s next drive, Muskegon’s Dwight McKinney came away with an interception on a tipped ball, giving the Big Reds a chance to tack onto the lead. However, a trio of penalties led to a four-and-out.
DeWitt’s offense rebounded from the interception to drive down field and tie the game. Andrew Debri scored a 5-yard touchdown to even things up 21-21 with 18 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Big Reds turned the ball over on downs on their first drive of the fourth quarter, but the defense forced a punt from DeWitt, setting up the game-winning 83-yard drive in the final minutes.
Martinez rushed 36 times for 281 yards and threw for 136 yards. Crowley was his top target with three catches for 106 yards.
Tarran Walker led the defense with 12 tackles, while Oakes had 10. Kolbe Lewis made seven stops.
DeWitt’s Schorfaar was 22 of 35 passing for 205 yards.