Clarkston — It was all about finishing.
Simply put, Clarkston finished its drives and Macomb Dakota didn’t, especially in the first half, resulting in a 24-21 victory by the defending Division 1 state champions in the season opener before their home fans Thursday night.
Dakota moved the ball into Clarkston territory on its first three drives, but came up empty each time, misfiring on a 25-yard field goal, then having a scoring threat end on fourth down at the 33, and finally having a Maurice Moon pass intercepted in the end zone by Austin Egler on a second down play from the 14.
Clarkston looked in postseason form early on, coming up with points on all three of its first possessions to take a 17-0 halftime lead.
First, senior quarterback D.J. Zezula found Joe Popp for a 12-yard touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead to cap off a 7-play, 80-yard drive late in the opening quarter.
Then, Clarkston opened up a 10-0 lead on Dimitri Abro’s 25-yard field goal midway through the second.
Zezula scored on a 13-yard run to give Clarkston a 17-0 cushion with 1:05 left in the half.
And, Zezula looks like he’s primed for another great season after leading Clarkston to the championship last year.
“They (Dakota) started to get some good passes going, good rallies going and then we capitalized with the big pick in the end zone and goal line stands,” said Zezula, who finished 8-for-12 for 177 yards and rushed for 90 yards on 15 carries. “Finishing off is the most important thing to do.
“Everybody can get going, but it’s all about finishing and putting points on the board.”
Zezula’s 42-yard pass to Merrick Canada set up the first score, his 45-yard pass to Canada set up the field goal, then found Nolan Eriksen for a 51-yard gain on a third down screen to set up the second score.
“That screen pass to Nolan Eriksen caught them way off guard,” said Zezula of Eriksen who celebrated his birthday with the big play. “That was a great call.”
Dakota, the perennial Macomb Area Conference Red Division power, moved the ball well on the strength of Moon’s arm and the legs of Kiser Carleton.
Oh, and don’t forget a 54-yard kickoff return by Benji Marshall. Still, Moon & Co. failed to get the ball in the end zone to … finish the drives.
And, Clarkston’s 6-3 senior defensive back, Austin Egler, had a lot to do with it, picking off Moon in the end zone, then grabbing another Moon pass near midfield with 24.2 seconds left in the half.
“The quarterback was telegraphing his passes,” said Egler, who also made a great block on a screen pass by Zezula and recovered an onside kick. “When he lobs it up there and I have a chance to come over the top it was pretty easy to just jump up there and snatch them.”
Sure, Dakota did get on the board when Breadyn Pittman scored on a 1-yard run midway through the third following Carleton’s 33-yard punt return.
But Dakota had a chance to cut the deficit to 17-14 following Robert Campbell’s 70-yard interception return. Dakota’s scoring threat ended when Moon was sacked by Cole Chewins for a 10-yard loss on third and seven from the 21, then Tristen Lewis got a hand on Moon's arm while he attempted to deliver a fourth down pass.
Zezula led a 69-yard drive to give Clarkston a 24-7 cushion with 10:52 remaining, breaking loose for a 50-yard run to set up Eriksen’s 2-yard touchdown run.
Still, Dakota made things interesting when Moon found John Hall for a 5-yard touchdown following a Clarkston fumble to pull within 24-14 with 2:30 left, then scored another touchdown on Carleton’s 1-yard run with five seconds left after another Clarkston miscue when the snap sailed over the punter’s head.
Dakota failed to execute the onside kick — ball didn’t go 10 yards — and Zezula took a knee to finishthe game.