Detroit — Legendary coach John Herrington led his Farmington Hills Harrison team at Ford Field Saturday night in search of arguably the biggest upset win of his 48-year career.
Herrington, 76, became the state’s all-time winningest coach (435-107-1) earlier this year, then guided Harrison to a record 18th state title game appearance against an unbeaten Muskegon team loaded with Division 1 talent and ranked as high as No. 19 nationally by MaxPreps.
Harrison (10-4) looked ready to play, trying to hand Herrington his 14th state championship before the school closes its doors in 2019.
But, in the end Muskegon just had way too much La’Darius Jefferson, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior quarterback who celebrated his 18th birthday by running for 245 yards (32 carries) and four TDs to lead his team to a 28-10 victory in the Division 3 final to earn its first state championship since 2008, tossing aside the frustration of losing the last four times it had reached the title game, including on the game’s final play to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s last year.
“It meant a lot, man, especially since we’ve been back and forth for five straight years and we’ve finally done it so it’s means the world to me,” said Jefferson who finished the season with 2,095 yards rushing and 33 TDs. “This state championship isn’t mine, it’s my teammates. This is the best one (game). It’s the best one because I got these boys what they deserve, got them a state championship so my season’s a success now.”
Muskegon — 14-0 and ranked No. 2 in The News Super 20 poll — held a 363-114 advantage in total yards, accounting for all of its yards on the ground.
Ben Williams was definitely ready to play, taking the opening kickoff 91 yards for a TD to give Harrison the early 7-0 lead. It was just the second time in State Finals history an opening kickoff was returned for a TD.
But Jefferson didn’t seem fazed.
Jefferson, who recently received offers from Michigan State and Georgia Tech and runs behind a mammoth line anchored by Penn State-bound Antwan Reed (6-foot-6, 315 pounds) and four-star junior Anthony Bradford (6-5, 330), broke loose for 26 yards on the first play of scrimmage out of the wildcat formation and continued to pick up yardage, 50 yards on seven carries, with the final eight coming on a fourth-and-3 play for a TD.
Then, Muskegon wanted nothing to do with Williams, giving Harrison good field position at its own 46 following a squib kick.
Harrison showed it could move the ball, advancing to the Muskegon 9 before junior running back Rod Heard was tackled for a 1-yard loss, leading to a 26-yard field goal by David Hiser on the final play of the quarter.
Muskegon took a 14-10 lead, which it carried into the locker room, when Jefferson picked up 55 yards to set up his own 14-yard TD with 4:29 left in the half.
Jefferson continued where he took off to start the second half, taking his team 78 yards on 12 plays and making sure he led the way — 48 yards, eight carries — picking up 14 yards on a third and 4 from the Harrison 32, then scoring on a 1-yard run for a 21-10 cushion midway through the third quarter.
“This offensive line is amazing, I feel like everyone on it is D1,” Jefferson said. “I’m so proud of them. I feel like it’s the best O line in the state.”
Harrison had a golden opportunity to narrow the deficit when Williams returned the kickoff 56 yards to the Muskegon 26, but the Hawks went backward and had to punt with Eli Jackson tossing quarterback Noah Hendricks down for a big 10-yard sack.
Muskegon’s defense was outstanding, shutting down the running game and giving Hendricks little time to pass.
Still, it was Jefferson who was the difference.
“I don’t know how fast he is, but he was plenty fast for us and tough,” Herrington said. “The plays weren’t anything real tricky. He’d take the snap, fake and run behind those big guys and we just couldn’t tackle him. Nobody stopped him all year and I guess we didn’t either.”
Herrington was satisfied with the season, getting one more chance to lead his team onto the field with a state championship on the line.
“It’s one of our best ever considering we didn’t think we’d make the playoffs at one time, and to make it this far was fantastic,” Herrington said. “I felt a little pressure to do something with the dang ball (after Williams’ second return) and I didn’t. I felt like when we got that good field position we got to take it in and do something and we didn’t do anything. I tried to pass on second down and we thought maybe we could mix it up and we couldn’t protect the quarterback. Thirty-five (Billie Roberts) and 44 (Eli Jackson) are pretty much unstoppable.”
Harrison picked up 65 total yards during the final three quarters. Hendricks connected on 9-of-14 passes, but for just 53 yards and Muskegon had nine tackles for lost yardage with Te’Andre Evans accounting for 2 1/2, along with a forced fumble and a recovered fumble, and Jackson and Roberts each getting 2.
Jefferson gave Muskegon some breathing room when he scored his fourth TD on a 3-yard run with 7:36 left to open a 28-10 lead. Davion McCall set up the score with a 46-yard run.
Harrison returns Heard, who entered the game with 1,490 yards and 23 TDs, but was limited to 48 yards on nine carries, along with Williams.
“Yes, I’ll be back for the last year and it will be a tough year,” Herrington said. “We’re not going to have a lot of guys, maybe 25, but we’re going to put a team together and have some fun.”