D.J. Zezula directed touchdown drives on the first three possession in defending champion Clarkston's 24-21 victory over Macomb Dakota. (Steve Perez / Detroit News)
You think there was a little pressure on Rodney Hall when he stepped on Adams Field Friday night to handle the quarterback duties for Detroit Cass Tech against Oak Park?
Hall was stepping in to replace all-state-caliber quarterback Jayru Campbell, who led Cass Tech to consecutive Division 1 state titles in 2011 and ’12 and a semifinal spot last year before his arrest for assaulting a school security guard.
That’s a lot of pressure for anybody, but especially for a 15-year-old sophomore like Hall.
And, Hall looked to be battling nerves during the game, fumbling snaps out of the shotgun, running from defenders like Michael Vick and having plays ending with big losses instead of gains.
Still, in the end Hall grew up before the thousands of fans during a fourth-quarter comeback for the ages, rallying Cass Tech from a 13-point deficit for a 27-26 win.
Hall rewarded Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher and offensive coordinator Dave Malecki for having confidence in him, sending him out there in one of the biggest games of the opening weekend, No. 2 Cass Tech against No. 5 Oak Park.
After being limited to just six points, Hall directed touchdown drives on Cass Tech’s final three possessions, all coming in the fourth quarter … and he made big plays in each.
“We came out and wanted to protect him early since he’s young and we didn’t really know what he could do (in game situations),” said Malecki, who calls the plays. “We had a big back in Mike Weber and a big line so it was like, ‘You don’t need to win the game, just don’t turn the ball over.’
“Then, they (Oak Park) started scoring and we couldn’t just pound the ball anymore. We had to open it up. I went up to him and said, ‘Rodney, man, we’re down two scores and we’ve got to go. We’ve got the firepower. You’ve got to grow up right now.’ And, he did grow up and I’m so proud of him.”
Hall completed his final eight passes for 150 yards and a TD during the fourth-quarter comeback.
First, Hall found sophomore receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones for a 47-yard TD pass with 11 minutes left to pull Cass Tech within 19-13.
Then, Hall’s 42-yard pass to junior Demetric Vance set up Weber’s two-yard TD run to cut the deficit to 26-20 with 7:16 left.
Hall again found Vance, who somehow came up with a pass in double coverage down the right sideline for a 42-yard gain to the 5. That set up Weber’s two-yard TD with 2:16 left, and Jalen Sparks converted the PAT for the difference.
Did Hall know just what pressure-packed situation he really was in, replacing Campbell, playing a powerhouse in Oak Park, a team loaded with Division 1 players?
“I felt a lot of pressure coming in because a lot of people were doubting me, saying I wasn’t going to get the job done,” Hall admitted. “I’m just happy we won and I played well. I feel good, happy I picked it up.
“I never dropped my head (earlier in the game) and said, ‘Dang, just take me out because I’m not doing good for my team.’ I knew I could do it. I just had to start making plays. We just needed to get the ball down the field as quick as possible and start scoring. We woke up.”
Weber was proud of his young quarterback.
“I told Rodney to stop having stage fright,” Weber said. “I just told him to put the team on his back and make it happen. He’s got a bright future here the next couple of years.”
Sure, Campbell could be back later this season, but Wilcher knows he has a winner in Hall.
Zezula, Clarkston start fast
D.J. Zezula helped Clarkston win the Division 1 state championship last year, so you wouldn’t think a game earlier that season would still be on his mind, but it was.
After Zezula put on a strong performance Thursday night in a 24-21 season-opening victory over Macomb Dakota, he was asked how important the win was, especially since the Clarkston lost its opener last season.
“Yes, 12-7 to Rochester Adams,” said Zezula, handing out the score and the opponent like it was still fresh in his mind. “We have that score, the picture of them celebrating on the field like they just won the state title in our locker room. That just killed us and that’s why this win was so huge.”
Zezula led Clarkston to scoring drives on its first three series, completing six of his nine passes for 162 yards to open up a 17-0 halftime lead.
He praised Rich Porritt, brother of Orchard Lake St. Mary’s head coach George Porritt, for the success.
“I give credit to our offensive coordinator. What he calls is pretty amazing,” Zezula said. “That screen pass to Nolan (Eriksen) caught them way off-guard.”
Porritt called a number of screen plays, including one from Zezula to Eriksen which went 51 yards to the Dakota 14 to set up Zezula’s 13-yard TD run for a 17-0 lead.
Clarkston has several players injured, making it necessary for 6-foot-7, 230-pound tight end Cole Chewins to move over to left tackle.
Zezula is looking for a return to Ford Field for another shot at a state title.
“That dark cloud over Clarkston that had been here forever, to finally get that away (with state title win) and have some breathing room where we’ve got one, let’s just do it again. We know what it takes.”
Good start for St. Mary's
Orchard Lake St. Mary’s senior cornerback Tyson Smith said it was an embarrassment for his team to have missed the state playoffs last year.
St. Mary’s finished 5-4 after playing in the Division 3 state title game the previous four years, winning the championship in 2011 and falling short in the title game in 2009, ’10 and ’12.
Smith, who committed to Michigan State, had never won a season opener prior to Friday’s 21-19 win over Southfield in the Prep Kickoff Classic.
“It was a huge win,” said Smith, who scored a 60-yard touchdown on a pass from Brandon Tabone and also played well defensively. “Everybody talks about your senior year and how you want to be ready, but it doesn’t hit you until it finally comes and then when you think about it, it’s like ‘Man, I have to get back to the playoffs.’
“We fell short (of playoffs) last year and that’s embarrassing, especially for St. Mary’s. Our seniors, we took it as a whole to step up and make sure we’re ready to go.”
Successful debut for Sofran
New Birmingham Brother Rice head coach Dave Sofran had a successful debut, defeating Chicago Brother Rice, 40-34, in an old-fashioned shootout.
Sofran replaced the legendary Al Fracassa, who won a state-record 430 games and guided Brother Rice to 13 state titles, including the last three in Division 2.
Michigan-bound quarterback Alex Malzone had a lot to do with it, throwing for four touchdowns, including a 69-yard TD strike to Grant Perry in the second quarter and an 80-yard scoring pass to Perry in the third. Also, Delano Madison hauled in a 29-yard TD pass to start the scoring and later returned a kickoff 76 yards for a score.
By the numbers
10 -- Passes completed by Rockford quarterback Landon Haney, without an incompletion, for 80 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-10 win over Utica Eisenhower.
56 -- Seconds needed before Canton scored in 2014 against Holland West Ottawa, when Jake Pagel broke loose for a 43-yard TD run on the second play from scrimmage. Canton piled up 285 yards on the ground in a 31-21 victory.
195 -- Yards rushed by Saginaw Swan Valley running back Alex Grace, who is coming off a state-record 2,952-yard season. He scored on runs of 19, 4, 95 and 1 and also threw a 39-yard TD pass in a 42-0 win over Saginaw Nouvel.
Matt Krause, Lake Orion
Krause, a 5-10, 195-pound running back, used his 4.45 speed to set a school record, rushing for 407 yards (14.5 average) and four touchdowns in a 38-35 loss to Clinton Township Chippewa Valley Thursday. The senior shattered the record held by Dennis Mahan (374 yards, 39 carries in 1995 against Rochester Adams).
“He showed speed, endurance and the ability to break tackles. Once he got to the second level he was gone.”
Chris Bell, Lake Orion coach, referring to running back Matt Krause, who had 407 yards rushing in a 38-35 loss at Chippewa Valley.