Utica Eisenhower had its hearts broken last year in the Division 1 semifinal when Donovan Peoples-Jones hauled in a 20-yard TD pass from Rodney Hall with 25 seconds left in Detroit Cass Tech’s 32-28 victory.
Peoples-Jones (Michigan) and Hall (Northern Illinois) have moved on and Eisenhower returns one of the premier dual-threat quarterbacks in the state in Max Wittwer, a reason it has to be considered the favorite to win the state championship at Ford Field on Nov. 25.
“We’re playing at a high level, getting better every week,” Eisenhower coach Chris Smith said. “Obviously, with the kids on the team last year, they understand what it takes to get back to that place again — the coaches, too.
“Max makes everything go, but his leadership is everything. He does great things on the field, runs our offense, but the thing that really makes him special is the way he treats his teammates, the way the players want to play next to his side and compete with him. Everything about his presence on the field is really a big boost for the whole team.”
Wittwer, who has multiple Division 1 offers, including one from Western Kentucky, has helped Eisenhower repeat as MAC Red champs while going unbeaten at 9-0, earning a No. 3 ranking in The News Super 20 poll. Eisenhower has averaged nearly 40 points.
“Our offensive line coach (Chris Layson) does a fantastic job,” Smith said. “Last year we replaced five starters and this year we replaced four so the line is getting better every week and more physical, learning the blocking schemes and they’re obviously a huge part of our offense since we run the ball so much.
“It’s tough to win the MAC Red, let alone to be undefeated, and we’ve been undefeated the last two years. It doesn’t happen often and when it does we’re grateful for the situation. It’s been a great two years so far.”
Belleville has as much talent as any team in the state, a reason it is ranked No. 1, but it hasn’t won a state playoff game in 15 years and starts a freshman quarterback in Christian Dhue-Reed, who has made great strides since the start of the season.
Belleville has outscored its opponents by an average of 44-7, but was challenged in its season opener, a 34-31 comeback overtime win over Brighton at the Big House and in the regular season finale, a 27-24 win over Temperance Bedford.
Defending state champion Cass Tech is capable of making another deep run and Saline and Canton will also be dangerous teams.
Defending champion: Detroit Cass Tech
Favorite: Utica Eisenhower
Dark horse: Canton
State final prediction: Utica Eisenhower over Belleville.
Toughest district: Without a doubt District 2 in Region 2 with No. 14 Canton (8-1) playing host to No. 15 Saline (7-1) Friday night, the winner moving on to face Belleville — ranked No. 1 in The News Super 20 poll — or Salem.
Toughest region: Region 4 with four of the eight teams ranked in The News Super 20 poll with a possible regional final putting No. 3 Utica Eisenhower against either No. 13 Waterford Mott and its talented quarterback David McCullum, or No. 18 West Bloomfield and Bowling Green-bound quarterback Bryce Veasley and Wisconsin-bound receivers Taj Mustapha and A.J. Abbott.
Notable: Seven 5-4 teams made the field, including Detroit Catholic Central, which lost to Warren De LaSalle in the Catholic League championship game Saturday night at Ford Field, and Warren Mott which came through with a 35-17 win over Grosse Pointe South Friday.
Detroit King enters as the two-time defending state champions and the team to beat, coming off an impressive 17-7 PSL semifinal win over Cass Tech, followed by a 21-0 victory over Detroit East English in the championship game last Friday night at Ford Field.
King coach Tyrone Spencer is happy with junior quarterback Dequan Finn, a second-year starter.
“He is doing a great job of doing exactly what we need as far as controlling the game and not making mistakes,” Spencer said of Finn, who has an offer from Arkansas State. “He’s done a great job of managing the game and making plays, and any time that people want to load the box he can throw it deep or hurt you in the run game.
“You can’t teach experience and just to be able to go through adverse situations like he did last year was so important since there’s just no other way except to gain that type of experience, and he’s really grown from it, not to mention what he did in the offseason to get faster.”
Finn has multiple weapons to work with in Iowa State-bound receiver Jaeveyon Morton, senior receiver Eric Gibson (Minnesota) and sophomore receiver Ra’Shawn Williams, who has an offer from Ohio State, along with Jalen Jackson, a 1,000-yard running back.
“He breaks tackles and has the speed to take it the distance,” Spencer said of Jackson, a transfer from River Rouge, who ran for a 90-yard TD in the PSL championship game. “I’m glad we have him on our team. He has 4.5 speed and can catch the ball out of the backfield.”
Junior defensive back Marvin Grant is also a force, intercepting four passes, including one against Cass Tech, then returning a blocked punt for a TD in the PSL title game.
“Marvin’s doing a great job,” Spencer said. “He loves contact. Our defensive line has done a great job all year, stuffing the run and making guys work for everything they get. We take pride in defense and we always have here at King.”
King’s defense limited East English — which entered the PSL final averaging 270 yards on the ground — to 60 rushing yards.
Muskegon Mona Shores (8-1) is talented, defeating Canton, 41-23 in the season opener at The Big House, then dropping a Week No. 8 battle to crosstown rival Muskegon, 35-24.
Warren De LaSalle will be a threat to make a deep run after going through the Catholic League in impressive fashion, defeating Detroit Catholic Central the last two weeks, 20-6 to clinch the Central Division, then 35-14 in the Prep Bowl Saturday night at Ford Field.
Defending champion: Detroit King (two-time)
Favorite: Detroit King
Contender: Muskegon Mona Shores
Dark horse: Warren De La Salle
State final prediction: Detroit King over Muskegon Mona Shores.
Toughest district: District 2 in Region 3 with No. 4 Detroit King and No. 12 Detroit East English in a possible district final. King won the PSL championship Friday night at Ford Field with a 21-0 win over East English, blanking East English on four red-zone opportunities.
Toughest region: Region 2 with Fenton (8-1) and its outstanding quarterback Josh Czarnota (1,953 yards passing, 23 TDs, 996 rushing, 14 TDs) and receiver Chanse Setzke (45 receptions, 1,093 yards, 14 TDs), 2015 state runner-up Lowell and last year’s state runner-up Walled Lake Western, ranked No. 10 in the eight-team field.
Notable: Flint Carman-Ainsworth was the lone 5-4 team to make the field. King could face De LaSalle in a regional final Nov. 18.
Muskegon advanced to the championship game four of the last five years, but has yet to bring home the ultimate trophy during that span, falling to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, 29-28 in the final seconds last season.
Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield feels this could be the Big Reds’ time to finish the deal. After all, they are 9-0 and the last time they entered postseason play with an unbeaten record, they won the Division 2 state title with a 34-14 win over Warren De LaSalle to finish 14-0 in 2008 with Tony Annese, now at Ferris State, as head coach.
Muskegon has the talent to go 14-0 this season, too, led by Central Florida-bound quarterback La’darius Jefferson, Penn State-bound tackle A.J. Reed (6-7, 330) and 6-foot-5, 330-pound junior tackle Anthony Bradford, who has offers from Alabama, Georgia and Michigan State.
Jefferson rushed for 290 yards (32 carries) and four TDs in a 35-24 win in Week 8 over crosstown rival Muskegon Mona Shores. Muskegon defeated Jenison, 66-7 Friday night to cap its unbeaten season.
“We’re 9-0 so it can change the mentality of the kids since every year we had lost one game going into the finals and lost, and now they can say this is a different story line, not the same pattern,” Fairfield said. “Our kids believe in us and if you’re a senior on this team two of your three years you’ve been in the state final, so they’ve played a lot of football, had a lot of extra practices and they have the big game mentality.”
Fairfield said the win over Mona Shores will get Muskegon ready for close games.
“I felt they’re a really good football team,” Fairfield said of Mona Shores. “There was a lot of hype on social media, the pressure of the crosstown thing so it was good to have such an emotional game in such a huge environment, playing in front of 11,000 fans, and to be trailing for the first time since Week 2 was good for us to show some character and togetherness and some composure that we can turn this on when we want to and the guys did that when we needed it most. Every time they scored, we answered with a score of our own.
“It was good to see our kids respond in a positive way because there’s going to be times in the playoffs when you’re going to need those moments and to put yourself in one in a crosstown game with the hype and 11,000 fans going into the playoffs, you couldn’t ask for a better scenario as a head coach.”
Jefferson has rushed for 1,168 yards (122 carries) and 15 TDs and has completed 60 of 97 passes for 1,019 yards and 16 TDs.
Don’t be surprised if Farmington Hills Harrison makes it to Ford Field in John Herrington’s 48th year as head coach, after playing a strong schedule to prepare for a long run. Herrington became the state’s all-time winningest head coach (431) this month.
Defending champion: Orchard Lake St. Mary’s
Contender: East Grand Rapids
Dark horse: Farmington Hills Harrison
State final prediction: Muskegon over Farmington Hills Harrison
Toughest district: District 2 in Region 1 with No. 5 East Grand Rapids facing a possible district final showdown with DeWitt (8-1).
Toughest region: Region 1 with No. 2 Muskegon, No. 5 East Grand Rapids and unbeaten Zeeland East in the eight-team field.
Notable: Four teams with 5-4 records made the field, including Trenton and New Boston Huron in District 2 of Region 3.
Grand Rapids Catholic Central capped its unbeaten regular season with a 52-23 win over Coopersville and will enter the postseason as the defending state champ, having defeated Detroit Country Day 10-7 last season at Ford Field.
Catholic Central has one of the top players in the state in 6-5, 270-pound two-way lineman Jalen Mayfield (Michigan) who is opening holes for Nolan Fugate, who rushed for a school-record 1,800 yards.
“He’s (Mayfield) been outstanding and has lived up to the hype, no question, great work ethic, great leadership and his strength and his conditioning really has improved, and it shows up in his play and that’s been a big factor for us,” Catholic Central coach Tod Kolster said.
Mayfield was a force in last year’s state title game, getting in on two tackles for lost yardage while forcing one fumble and recovering another.
Kolster had high praise for Fugate, along with two-year starting quarterback Jack Bowen.
“Nolan Fugate is our tailback and became our all-time leading rusher in the history of our school, which is 107 years of football,” Kolster said. “He has more than 1,800 yards rushing this season and 22 TDs, and keep in mind three of our games he didn’t play in the second half due to running clocks.
“Nolan’s been a special player for us, he’s one of the best running backs in the state of Michigan, 6-foot-1, 208 pounds and can really run, runs a high 4.5, low 4.6. He’s a MAC kid, but hasn’t had a Division 1 offer yet, really it’s unbelievable that no one has offered him.
“Jack’s been our quarterback the last two years, helped us to a 22-1 record, he has 44 touchdown passes and nine interceptions during that span. He’s really had great production the last two years, helped us obviously last year and has been very efficient this season.”
River Rouge had a strong season and should make a long run, as could Grand Rapids South Christian (7-2) — which suffered a 13-7 loss to East Grand Rapids Friday — and Comstock Park (6-3) which pushed Grand Rapids Catholic Central to the limit this season, falling 57-50 despite Chase Brown completing 40 passes for 447 yards and four4 TDs.
Defending champion: Grand Rapids Catholic Central
Favorite: Grand Rapids Catholic Central
Contender: River Rouge
Dark horse: Grand Rapids South Christian
State final prediction: Grand Rapids Catholic Central over River Rouge.
Toughest district: District 1 in Region 4 with No. 16 River Rouge possibly facing Chelsea (8-1) in a district final.
Toughest region: Region 2 with Grand Rapids Catholic Central first needing to get past unbeaten Wyoming Kelloggsville in a possible district final before a potential regional final against Comstock Park, which averages 40 points and suffered a 57-50 loss to GRCC earlier this season.
Notable: Benton Harbor was one of six 5-4 teams to make the field, earning a playoff appearance for the third straight year under Elliot Uzelac, winning four of its final five games after an 0-3 start and playing a competitive schedule, including losses to Dearborn Divine Child, Grand Rapids South Christian and Traverse City West.
Grand Rapids West Catholic knows its way to Ford Field, having made the trip east the last five years, losing to Portland in 2012 before coming back with the ultimate trophy the last four years.
West Catholic enters with a pair of losses, including a 35-33 loss to Grand Rapids Catholic Central, and could face either Portland or Olivet in a district final.
Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard (7-2) could make some noise. Its lone losses came at the hands of Dearborn Divine Child.
Detroit Denby (6-2) also has the talent to make a long run, showing its potential with an early-season 12-6 victory over Detroit Central, forcing five turnovers.
Defending champion: Grand Rapids West Catholic (four-time)
Favorite: Grand Rapids West Catholic
Dark horse: Marine City
State final prediction: Grand Rapids West Catholic over Saginaw Swan Valley
Toughest district: District 1 in Region 4, with unbeaten Frankenmuth having a potential district final battle against either Marine City or Richmond.
Toughest region: Region 3 with Grand Rapids West Catholic possibly facing any number of traditional powers in the regional title game, including Lansing Catholic Central, Portland or Olivet.
Notable: No 5-4 team made the field in Division 5.
Detroit Central has the opportunity to spoil the party for Ithaca and defending state champion Jackson Lumen Christi.
Ithaca has to be considered the favorite, entering with a 9-0 record and knowing the way to Ford Field after winning five of the last seven state championships.
But Detroit Central has Western Michigan-bound quarterback El Julian Jordan, who has multiple weapons to work with in Darrius Adkins, Brandon Cooper, Germaine Williams and Jerodd Vines, who has multiple MAC offers, along with a punishing running game in Demetrius Christian and Lorenzo White Jr.
Jordan has completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 2,350 yards and 28 TDs, including three TD passes in a 40-0 rout of Detroit Denby Friday at Ford Field in the PSL B Division championship game.
Vines has 24 receptions for 692 yards for a 28.8-per catch average and 10 receiving TDs, along with six defensive TDs.
“If we’re focused and on task it’s going to be hard for anybody to match up with us,” Central coach Lynn Sanders said.
And, don’t forget unbeaten Watervliet and its talented quarterback Zachary Pickens, who has completed 73 percent of his passes for 2,891 yards and 29 TDs with 2 interceptions, while rushing for 1,146 yards (174 carries) and 25 TDs. His primary weapon is 6-3, 200-pound receiver Bryant Kieft, who has 46 receptions for 1,282 yards and 13 TDs.
Watervliet has a potential regional final showdown with Ithaca.
Defending champion: Jackson Lumen Christi
Contender: Detroit Central
Dark horse: Watervliet
State final prediction: Detroit Central over Ithaca
Toughest district: District 2 in Region 4 with Detroit Central (7-2) and Warren Michigan Collegiate (9-0) in a possible district final.
Toughest region: Region 2 with Ithaca and unbeaten Montague on collision course to face each other in the regional final.
Notable: There are six 5-4 teams that made the field, including four in Region 3: Schoolcraft, Delton Kellogg, Quincy and Hillsdale.
Austin Brown led Detroit Catholic Central to the Division 1 state championship game last year, but missed the final after suffering a broken leg in the semifinal.
Now, Brown is playing for Madison Heights Madison, the catalyst for an unbeaten regular season.
New Lothrop enters as the favorite with defending state champion Pewamo-Westphalia also a major factor.
Defending champion: Pewamo-Westphalia
Favorite: New Lothrop
Contender: Madison Heights Madison
Dark horse: Hudson
State final prediction: Madison Heights Madison over New Lothrop
Toughest district: District 1 in Region 2 with a possible district final showdown between Pewamo-Westphalia and New Lothrop.
Toughest region: Region 4 with Madison Heights Madison needing to get past Detroit Delta Prep, then either unbeaten Rochester Hills Lutheran Northwest or Riverview Gabriel Richard (8-1) before a possible regional final game against Hudson (8-1).
Notable: There are four 5-4 teams in the field, including 5-4 Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central, which won the Division 6 state championship in 2014, ending Ithaca’s 69-game winning streak. Detroit Loyola missed the playoffs after advancing to the state championship game in four of the previous five years, winning the title in 2014 and losing in the championship game last season.
It will always be difficult to pick someone other than Muskegon Catholic Central as the favorite in Division 8 since it is the four-time defending state champ.
Still, Ottawa Lake Whiteford has to be considered a threat, scoring 488 points this season, averaging 51 points with its closest victory being a 31-point win.
Muskegon Catholic Central has a potential showdown with Whiteford in the regional title game.
Defending champion: Muskegon Catholic Central (four-time)
Favorite: Muskegon Catholic Central
Contender: Ottawa Lake Whiteford
Dark horse: Mendon
State final prediction: Muskegon Catholic over Gaylord St. Mary’s
Toughest district: District 1 in Region 3 with unbeaten Mendon facing a possible district final showdown with Muskegon Catholic Central.
Toughest region: Region 3 with unbeaten Mendon, Muskegon Catholic Central, Pittsford (8-1) and talented Climax-Scotts (7-2) all in the eight-team field.
Notable: Five 4-4 or 5-4 teams made the field.