BIG DOGS EAT: Brighton plays keep-away from high-powered Belleville for first-ever title game berth
HOWELL — A wise football coach once said that time of possession only counts in exorcism.
That may be true, as long as you’re not the team whose postseason hopes just turned into ghosts.
The underdog Brighton Bulldogs exorcised demons of past losses to KLAA conference rival Belleville, beating the favored Tigers 22-19 in Saturday’s Division 1 semifinal contest by playing keep-away from the powerful Belleville offense all game long, earning themselves a spot in their first-ever championship game.
“No one picked us to win. No one even thought we could win. Except those people in the stands, and the guys on the field right here,” Brighton coach Brian Lemons said. “We just stuck to the game plan, never once panicked. We just had to make one play today, and we made it in the end zone when it counted the most. One of our kids was going to come up and win a game against these guys — it was our turn.”
Nick Nemecek scored the game-winning touchdown on a 19-yard reception with 50.1 seconds left, then ran in the 2-point conversion, to boot — both on broken plays.
“The only way we win is if we believe. I truly believed that we had these guys before — I believed we had it, and we did,” Nemecek said. “I mean, we owed them one. We had to do it.”
Belleville (12-1) got off a Hail Mary attempt from the Brighton 36 with 2.3 seconds left, but it fell incomplete in the end zone. The Tigers’ undefeated season ends in the semifinals for a second straight year.
Brighton (11-2) advances to the Division 1 championship game at Ford Field on Saturday, Nov. 30, where they’ll face Davison (11-2), a 34-27 overtime winner over Sterling Heights Stevenson in the other semifinal. Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m.
“Hell, yeah. Feels great,” Lemons said.
“It’s amazing. It’s amazing to make history, it’s amazing to be a part of all this,” Nemecek said.
The Bulldogs had given Belleville battles in season-opening games each of the past two seasons, losing by three in 2017 and by four in 2018. Last year’s KLAA championship game was not as close, with the Tigers winning 32-17.
But those close wins had Belleville coach Jermain Crowell as worried as anything, immediately after last week’s win over West Bloomfield in the regional finals.
“They’ve always been close, and sooner or later, the ball bounces the other way. They came out, they played,” Crowell said, noting that, yes, he had seen a team possess the ball like Brighton did Saturday. “Yeah. Them. They’ve done it before. They know what we run, so we have to disguise it, and sometimes the fits aren’t right. They outplayed us. They were better than us. They beat us on the field. … At the end of the day, all of that is on me. I didn’t do a good enough job of preparing the defense to stop them.”
The Bulldogs had two drives of eight minutes or more, and one of five, along with one that ran the final three minutes off the clock in the second quarter.
“That was the game plan, to drive the ball. Every time we cross into their territory was a win. Getting down inside the red zone is a win. The best defense we had tonight was our offense,” Lemons said, praising his offensive line. “Those guys did such a great job today, taking on that type of talent, and not backing down.”
The Tigers started the game with just two down linemen on defense, then later went to three mid-game, and eventually four. It still wasn’t enough to stop the Bulldogs from grinding out yardage.
“We had to. I mean, they were keeping the ball away from the offense. I think if our offense had had more opportunities, it would’ve worked out better for us. I thought that was the better match-up. But I thought that’s what most teams that played us should do — just try to keep the ball away from the offense. They took the whole third quarter,” Crowell said. “At the beginning of the year, we graduated our whole front seven, so I was thinking if we can stop people from running the ball, we’ll be all right. We had gotten better throughout the year, but they exposed some weaknesses.”
Nemecek carried the mail in the first half, racking up most of his 103 total yards, while quarterback Colby Newburg took over running the ball more in the second half, ending up with 100 on the nose.
“We knew that second half, their adjustment would be to stop Nick. He carried the ball a ton in the first half. Second half, he’s an extra blocker to run, so why not?” Newburg said.
“They (the offensive line) put the pedal to the metal today. They do every game, but … all (the Tigers’) defensive linemen are huge, good athletes. Our O-line did a heck of a job. They were ginormous.”
The line of Nate Hoffman (Air Force), Jack Cataldo, Dylan Andrews, Matt Copple and Brad Luketic opened holes no matter how many down linemen the Tigers put in. As a team, the Bulldogs rushed for 226 yards on 54 carries, and had just three negative-yardage plays all game.
“We’ve got some boys out here. We lined up and we pounded it to them. We got 3 or 4 yards every single play, and we just moved it,” Nemecek said. “I mean, we didn’t get touched until 3 or 4 yards down the field. It was amazing.”
TyTravion Lewis took a shovel pass from Christian Dhue-Reid 19 yards for a score to put Belleville up 19-14 three plays into the fourth.
Brighton fumbled on its next drive, but got Belleville to turn it over on downs at the Brighton 27 with 6:05 left, and the Bulldogs ground more than five minutes off the clock before Newburg found Nemecek 12 plays later in the front corner of the end zone for the game-winning score. The drive was sustained by two defensive penalties — a personal foul on third down and a pass interference on fourth-and-3 at the Belleville 30 that negated an apparent interception.
“I was on the ground — I got hit. I heard everyone cheering, and was like ‘What happened?’” Newburg said of the pass interference penalty.
“I thought that was it. I knew we were going to do something special after that.”
On the next play, Newburg started to his right, then had to reverse field, and throw across his body.
“It was a fake run, roll to the right, and find the open guy. They were coming on me upfield, so I ran back left, I saw Nick in the end zone, and I sent him a prayer,” said Newburg, who only completed the one pass in the game, after scads of completions through the first 13 contests. “This year? A hundred-something (completions). That’s all right. We got the win. That’s all that matters.”
Nemecek outleaped a defender in the corner of the end zone to bring in the reception.
“I saw Colby rolling out to the left. He just chucked it up and I went up and grabbed it. I was open, so I was calling for it. Saw it coming, and just went for it,” Nemecek said. “It’s undescribable. It’s absolutely incredible. I … still can’t believe I did it.”
Belleville took the opening drive down the field, and went up 6-0 when Dhue-Reid hit Connor Bush with an 11-yard touchdown pass. Brighton took advantage of a fumbled punt snap, using the short field to answer Belleville’s touchdown with 1-yard dive by Nemecek. Deion Burks caught a 29-yard scoring pass from Dhue-Reid on the first play of the second quarter to put Belleville back up 13-7, but the Tigers would have the ball just two plays in the second quarter.
Newburg scored on a 3-yard run to put Brighton up 14-13, then a Cole Riddle interception allowed the Bulldogs to take the rest of the time off the second-quarter clock. Brighton got it down to a goal-to-go situation before penalties backed them up, and a third-down pass to the end zone was incomplete as time expired in the half.
Belleville didn’t get the ball back until 2:08 remained in the third quarter, when Brighton’s 15-play opening drive stalled at the Belleville 11, and Lewis put the Tigers ahead nine plays later, but the Belleville offense wouldn’t get the ball again until just 39.9 seconds remained.
The Tigers got into Brighton territory with a 20-yard dump pass to Lewis, but — after a pass deep down the right sideline was caught out of bounds — had to resort to a Hail Mary prayer, which wasn’t answered.