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Formula for success for this year’s MHSAA football finalists? Ground and pound

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, November 27, 2019, 11:09 pm

It was a spur-of-the-moment, off-the-cuff comment on the STATE CHAMPS! Network Extra Point Live podcast, that turned into its own mini-meme.

In talking about the dominating postseason turned in to date by Detroit King power back Peny Boone, I blurted out “This is Peny Boone weather.” 

The point behind the quip: The further you get in the playoffs, the more teams — when faced with the possibility of poor November weather, particularly at night, and cold, slick, muddy fields — the more you tend to rely on a guy like the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Boone, who can plow through the muck.

And, it’s true. 

In general, you’re probably going to have more luck with a run-based offense than trying to throw it all around the field when the gales (and hails) of November come early.

Granted, the MHSAA tries its best to make sure that most — if not all — of the semifinal contests are played on turf fields, to eliminate the likelihood of mud and torn-up sod. And all (except this season for the Pewamo-Westphalia vs. Iron Mountain matchup at NMU’s Superior Dome) are usually played on Saturday afternoons, to increase the likelihood of warmer temps. 

But to get to that point, it’s still a tried-and-true formula to ride the back of a running game.

Just looking at the offensive stats 16 teams that made the finals this season will tell you that. 

[For the Fearless Finals Forecast, CLICK HERE.]

All but four of the 16 teams — Lansing Catholic, Davison, Grand Rapids Catholic Central and King — rushed for more yards than they passed for this season, and seven of the teams had rushing yards account for more than 75 percent of their total.

Three of the teams — Monroe St. Mary CC (91.8 percent rush yards), Reading (81.5 percent) and Beal City (80.2 percent) — were north of 80 percent.

And those are just the yardage totals.

When you look at the breakdown of rush attempts vs. pass attempts, only King ran it (167 times) fewer times than it threw the ball (187 attempts). On the other end of the spectrum, the T-formation powerhouse from SMCC threw the ball just 29 times, and ran it five shy of 500 through 11 games played. 

While King has been primarily a passing team this season, featuring the arm of freshman Dante Moore, they’ve certainly been willing to ride on the shoulders of Boone’s powerful running, too. 

He’s been tremendously effective in the playoffs.

To wit, Boone’s playoff resume:

(Boone’s playoff stats compiled from the official King football Twitter account.)

• vs. Temperance Bedford: 11 carries, 165 yards, 2 TDs

• vs. Livonia Franklin: 11 carries, 93 yards, 1 TD

• vs. Detroit U-D Jesuit: 13 carries, 183 yards, 3 TDs

• vs. Birmingham Seaholm: 14 carries, 182 yards, 4 TDs

Playoff run to date: 49 carries, 623 yards (12.7 yards per carry), 10 TDs

[For the Football Finals Primer, CLICK HERE.]

The other three pass-heavy offenses also have a complementary running game. 

Grand Rapids Catholic Central has relied on the equally effective arm of Joey Silveri, who had 2,491 yards passing and 31 touchdowns through 12 games, but they also got more than 700 yards rushing from both Silveri and Nick Hollern. 

Running coach Jim Ahern’s modified version of the Single Wing that he developed first at Ithaca, Lansing Catholic’s offense runs through quarterback Zach Gillespie, who threw for 2,269 yards, and added nearly 500 more on the ground, along with 18 rushing touchdowns through 12 games. Split end Alex Watters was approaching 1,300 yards from scrimmage, along with 34 touchdowns, 20 of them on 43 carries.

And Davison — which had a standout quarterback running the show last year in Cannon Hall — has gotten that same sort of straw-stirring this season from wideout-turned-highly recruited-quarterback Brendan Sullivan, who threw for 2,635 yards and 31 touchdowns through 12 games. What have the Cardinals done in their last couple of games to supplement that, though?

Turn to a more potent running game that features Caleb Smith (889 yards, 13 TDs) and Carter Cryderman (525 yards, 7 TDs) to power their way through. 

Hasn’t always been that way, though.

Fifteen years ago, we were talking about how pass-happy the high school game had become. 

In the mid-2000s, I was covering a college team — the Alma College Scots, with their Scotgun spread — that was rewriting record books at the Division III level. At that same time, the spread offense had crept quickly down into the high school ranks. Seventy-five percent of our local teams in that area were running some version of the spread offense, at the time. 

And it wasn’t just localized to that area.

From the late 1990s, when Mio’s Greg Sidebottom set the single-season passing record (3,224 yards in 1997), that record has been bettered by 14 players.

Merrill’s John Breasbois broke Sidebottom’s record two years later, with 3,776 yards. That mark lasted 10 seasons, until Jason Fracassa set the current record at 4,433 in 2009, when he led Sterling Heights Stevenson to the Division 1 finals.

This year’s finals has nobody close to that mark. 

Is that a sign that the trend toward the spread offense is a thing of the past?

Could be. 

Or could just be part of a continuing evolution.

There are a lot of teams that still spread the field, but do it to set up the run more than the pass. Jet sweeps, quarterback read-options, RPOs (run-pass options). 

Davison’s opponent in the D1 finals, Brighton, is the team next closest to that 50-50 mark (currently at 66.1 percent run), and they were probably closer to a true even balance at the end of the regular season. Colby Newburg, who has thrown for 1,335 yards and 18 scores, and rushed for 1,242 yards, completed just one pass in the Bulldogs’ win over Belleville in the semifinals — the game-winning lob to back Nick Nemecek with 50 seconds to go.

“This year? A hundred-something (completions),” said Newburg, who has completed 94 of 146 passes, said afterward, when asked about the irony of Saturday’s paltry total. “That’s all right. We got the win. That’s all that matters.”

The Bulldogs have been riding the legs of Newburg and Nemecek, as well as the solid offensive line in front of them, controlling the clock and maintaining possession of the ball, and throwing less and less. 

Oh, there will still be some passing numbers put up in this year’s finals. Somebody may end up making a mark in the record book — like Madison Heights Madison’s Austin Brown did with 298 yards in last year’s D7 title-game loss to New Lothrop — but it probably won’t be a repeat of 2013, where four passers — Grand Rapids West Catholic’s Gaetano Vallone (311 yards), DeWitt’s Jake Johnson (289), Birmingham Brother Rice’s Alex Malzone (263) and Ithaca’s Travis Smith (247) — all went off with games for the record books. 

Instead, we’re probably going to see quite a bit of ground and pound. 


Here are some of the top runners you’ll see toting the rock this weekend: 

Walker Plate, Jackson Lumen Christi, Sr., RB — 261 carries, 2,279 yards, 31 TDs

Deandre Bulley, River Rouge, Sr. RB — 200 carries, 1,820 yards, 20 TDs

Cameron Martinez, Muskegon, Sr. QB — 194 carries, 1,735 yards, 32 TDs

Alex Morgan, Monroe SMCC, Sr. FB — 110 carries, 1,571 yards, 16 TDs

Tanner Wirth, Pewamo-Westphalia, Soph. RB — 157 carries, 1,499 yards, 24 TDs

Tre’shawn Hatcher, Muskegon Mona Shorees, Sr. RB — 140 carries, 1,257 yards, 12 TDs

Coby Newburg, Brighton, Sr. QB — 143 carries, 1,242 yards, 18 TDs

Hunter Midtgard, Reading, Sr. FB — 129 carries, 1,212 yards, 15 TDs

Jonathan Wright, Maple City Glen Lake, Sr. RB — 130 carries, 1,112 yards, 17 TDs

Nick Nemecek, Brighton, Jr. RB — 194 carries, 1,010 yards, 8 TDs

Mareyohn Hrabowski, River Rouge, Jr. QB — 100 carries, 1,000 yards, 11 TDs

Peny Boone, Detroit King, Sr. RB — 94 carries, 903 yards, 15 TDs

Caleb Smith, Davison, Sr. RB — 129 carries, 889 yards, 13 TDs

Mason Smith, Almont, Soph. RB — 96 carries, 866 yards, 11 TDs

Tommy Watts, Muskegon, Sr. RB — 73 carries, 852 yards, 17 TDs