Detroit — Ithaca’s Jake Smith waited in the wings, but with his team trailing Clinton 13-0 in the second half of the Division 6 championship game at Ford Field on Friday, the senior quarterback busted out in full force.
Overcoming a lot of early mistakes, Ithaca (14-0) rode Smith's four second-half touchdowns and an unstoppable wave of momentum to its fifth championship in six years with a 27-20 triumph over Clinton.
Noah Poore scored on fourth down from 4 yards out to pull Clinton within a score with just under five minutes to play.
After a failed onside kick attempt, Clinton had to find a way to get Smith off the field.
Smith carried the ball five times for 32 yards on the ensuing drive, but on third-and-8 from the Clinton 33, he only managed 3.
Clinton (13-1) called its final timeout.
Smith overthrew Colton Campbell on fourth down, and Clinton had its chance with 70 yards to go.
Kaden Kelly connected with Poore for 16 yards on a first-down screen pass, but a Clinton team that had just 68 pass attempts all season was unable to get into a rhythm, tossing three consecutive incompletions before Derek Teed came off the edge and sacked Kelly to seal the victory for Ithaca.
“It was pretty dark there for a while,” Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook said. “They had us on the ropes.
"I was pretty hard on (Smith) at halftime, but he stepped up when he had to and made some fantastic plays.”
Mathew Sexton (20 carries, 141 yards, TD) started the second half in style for Clinton, breaking out a 56-yard touchdown that put his team on top 13-0 in the first minutes of the third quarter.
Smith had seen enough.
Ithaca answered with its first scoring drive of the day. Smith hit DeMull for a 34-yard gain down to the Clinton 14, and on the very next play, Smith took it home on a designed quarterback draw to make it 13-7.
“(That was) a huge spark,” Smith said of his big gainer to DeMull. “Whenever we have plays that go for that much yardage, it definitely helps out.”
The Ithaca defense seemed to draw on the energy from its offense. Ithaca forced a punt and took over at the Clinton 43 following a shank. Smith hit DeMull for a 22-yard gain, and again two plays later for an 18-yard touchdown to grab the 14-13 lead.
After Clinton’s next possession produced another three-and-out, another shanked punt set Ithaca up just 39 yards from paydirt. This time, Smith did it all himself, as on third-and-10 from the Clinton 11 he eluded a near-sack in the backfield and danced his way through the defense for a score that put Ithaca up, 21-13.
On Ithaca’s next possession, Smith pulled a rabbit out of his hat, connecting with Grant Gimmey for 27 yards on third-and-21. Smith ran 24 yards down to the Clinton 7 on the next play. Two plays later, he was in the end zone for a third time, giving his team a 27-13 lead after a missed extra point.
Smith finished with 25 carries for 126 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, going 10-for-21 through the air for 180 yards and a score.
“First half we did what we wanted to do, but in the third quarter he found something,” Clinton coach Scott McNitt said. “Give him his accolades. He’s an outstanding football player.”
The second half was a completely different affair than the defensive first half.
After blocking a field goal on the game’s first possession, offense looked out of sorts on offense, committing two false start penalties and nearly fumbling the ball away inside its own 15. And if going three-and-out deep in its own territory weren’t bad enough, Smith shanked the ensuing punt and gave Clinton possession just 22 yards out.
Kelly wasted little time taking advantage, using a play fake to find Poore for a 21-yard touchdown that put Clinton up 7-0.
This was Ithaca’s sixth consecutive appearance in the state championship game. It won the title every year from 2010 to 2013 before falling to Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central in 2014 (its only loss over the last 84 games). Ithaca beat Clinton in the 2013 championship game, 41-22.
Geoff Robinson is a freelance writer.