Redemption on the Line when Trojans Travel to DeWitt
Above: Wide receiver Jack Morse (left) is one of quarterback Joe Benbraham’s favorite targets on offense. The two seniors have been part of the East Lansing football program since fourth grade.
It’s been six weeks and the initial sting has worn off, but the East Lansing High School football team has not forgotten what it was like to be shut out on Homecoming night to the tune of 37-0.
DeWitt made itself right at home on Jeff Smith Field at Lynn C. Adams Stadium, while very little went right for the host Trojans.
Tonight’s round two of the Division 3 playoffs – kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. – shifts a few miles to the north where the home crowd has been used to witnessing a steady stream of fire burst from its Panther mascot perched high atop the scoreboard. Unbeaten (10-0), champions of the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue Division and ranked second in the state by the Associated Press, DeWitt has outscored its 10 opponents by a combined total of 420-82.
In one four-week stretch earlier this season, DeWitt outscored its four opponents – Okemos, Holt, East Lansing and Everett – by a resounding 178-7.
“They’re good, we know that,” said East Lansing senior receiver/placekicker Jack Morse. “They shut us out on our field, on Homecoming … so we have to go out and prove ourselves (Friday).”
East Lansing holds a 3-2 edge in recent playoff history between the schools. The Trojans won district championship games against the Panthers in 2007, ’08 and ’11 while DeWitt prevailed in ’10 and ’16.
“It’s a good matchup, it usually is,” East Lansing head coach Bill Feraco said. “We know we have to play much better this time around. I believe we will. But we also know that Rob (Zimmerman, DeWitt head coach) will have his kids well prepared. We expect nothing but their best.”
DeWitt has averaged 382 yards of offense per game, 276 rushing and 106 passing while only allowing an average of 163 yards per game. In its 34-7 victory last week over St. Johns, DeWitt broke open a close game (14-7) by scoring on an eight-play, 73-yard drive to open the third quarter. Tyler Warren’s 60-yard touchdown provided some cushion for the Panthers, who closed out their scoring with 2:28 left to play in the fourth quarter on a 7-yard run by Thaddeus Anwar.
In the second half, DeWitt held St. Johns to 64 yards of total offense.
East Lansing, on the other hand, found itself in an offensive tug-of-war with Haslett. In the fourth quarter the Trojan defense denied the Vikings on three separate fourth-down attempts inside East Lansing territory to help preserve a 33-30 victory. Junior Jamar Mills led the EL defensive charge with a game-high 15 tackles.
“For the most part, I thought we did a decent job defensively against a very talented quarterback,” Feraco said. “However, there were times when we failed to carry out our assignments or used poor technique, and it got us in trouble.”
Feraco knows that for the sixth-ranked Trojans to advance they must protect senior quarterback Joe Benbraham long enough for receivers like Morse and sophomore Andrel Anthony to find openings in the DeWitt secondary.
“Our line play has been improving week by week,” Feraco said. “We’re young in there – with a freshman and two sophomores among the interior linemen – but they’re showing signs of confidence.”
Feraco has referred to the Trojans as “a work in progress” on more than one occasion this season. But the Trojans also have instant offense in senior tailback Kobe Hayward (892 yards rushing, an average of 6 yards per carry) and senior kick returner Justin Brown, who busted loose again last week for an 88-yard touchdown return.
“That was a key play, no question,” Feraco said. “We always tell the kids that the special teams big play is a real momentum changer. It happened at Portage, and it happened against Haslett. It played a big role in the game.”
Morse caught four passes and in the second quarter kicked an important 31-yard field goal, his seventh three-pointer of the season. Junior linebacker T’Senre Gray, who earlier this season filled in at tailback while Hayward was recuperating from a chest injury, tagged Haslett quarterback Mitchell Mowid for a safety on the opening possession of the third quarter.
Feraco hopes the Trojans can find different ways to score against the DeWitt defense, which has proven several times this season to be impenetrable.
“The adage is, answer a score with a score – whether it’s a field goal or six points.”
Benbraham, who completed 15 of 27 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown against Haslett, said Friday’s game will be another test of his team’s composure.
“Cool, calm, collected,” said the senior signal caller. “Our feeling is the same every week. We’re just trying to do our thing and get plays right. Execute and get better as a whole.”
The work in progress continues Friday night.