Detroit — For the fifth season in a row, the Dearborn Fordson and Detroit Cass Tech football teams met in the playoffs.
For the first time in those five years, Fordson won.
On the strength of senior quarterback Hussein Ajami’s arm, Fordson beat host Cass Tech, 41-14, on Saturday to claim a Division 1 district title.
“It’s extremely emotional. I’m proud of the kids, and honestly, I give Cass Tech a lot of credit because they made us a better program,” Fordson coach Walker Zaban said after embracing Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher at midfield.
“They made us a better team, and they made us work harder. I thank Coach Wilcher and Cass Tech. A lot of credit goes to the kids. They deserve the credit because they executed, they played hard and they wanted it.”
Fordson (10-1) will play at Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (11-0) in a Division 1 regional final next week. The date and time is to be announced.
Ajami, who was carried off the field by his teammates in triumph, had a near-perfect first half, going 9-for-13 passing for 158 yards and four touchdowns to stake Fordson (10-1) to a 27-14 halftime lead. He would finish 11-for-16 for 183 yards.
“It felt great,” Ajami said. “It’s unexplainable, to be honest. I give all the credit to my linemen and the receivers making plays. I wouldn’t be anything without them. They’re the reason we’re here. They’re the reason we won.”
“He’s (Ajami) been extremely consistent this year,” Zaban said. “He’s been a leader and a spark plug. He’s the guy that’s made us go this year.”
Senior Ahmed Allamy was the beneficiary of much of Ajami’s brilliance. The wide receiver had four catches for 164 yards and two touchdown receptions.
“Me and my boy Ahmed, we’ve been together four years now building up the chemistry,” Ajami said. “He’s been that go-to guy, one of the most underrated receivers in the state. He caught some tough balls that I threw to him.”
“This is amazing, it really is,” Allamy said. “I’ve got to give credit to the whole Cass Tech team. They played a hell of a game. We know how to spread the field and confuse the defense, it keeps them guessing.”
Senior tight end Hadi Hamid also had a big day, scoring two touchdowns on four catches for 22 yards.
“Finally,” Hamid said. “We’re going to celebrate, but this is for everyone else. It’s been 10 years since we’ve beaten these guys. They don’t lose at home. Coming into this, we were underdogs.
"It’s a family. We stick together. We have the best quarterback in the state, no doubt in my mind. We’ve worked since January for this.”
With the help of long touchdown drives on offense, the Fordson defense was able to hold Cass Tech (10-1) to 40 yards and no points in the second half.
“I give a lot of credit to the defense,” Ajami said. “They’re the reason we won, holding the best team in the state to 14 points.”
“You adjust to what they do,” Zaban said. “Our plan was to stop the run first and get after them when they needed to pass, and we were able to do that.”
Fordson’s running game took over in the second half, bleeding the clock. Abraham Jaafar finished with 80 yards on 13 carries, and junior running back James Wheeler totaled 77 yards on 14 carries and had two second-half touchdowns.
Cass Tech’s normally stout defensive line couldn’t get to Ajami when Fordson was passing in the first half, recording only one sack, and it couldn’t hold up against Fordson’s rushing attack in the second half.
Cass Tech was a team primed for a long playoff run. It had outscored its opponents 427-49 and recorded four consecutive shutouts earlier in the season. Heading into the game, it was ranked No. 1 in The News' Super 20 poll, but now it loses quarterback Jalen Graham (Purdue) and top running backs Jaren Mangham (Colorado) and Lew Nichols (Central Michigan) to graduation.
“To me, it was just working together as a team, period,” Wilcher said when asked what went wrong in the district finals. “It was basic tackling and hitting.The mentality for us is to get together as a coaching staff and figure out what we’ve got to do in the offseason to get things back on the right track. We’ve got to look at all the things we messed up at as coaches and try to straighten it out and then move forward. Once we get the coaching right, everything else will fall into place.”
Graham finished 5-for-16 passing for 51 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Cass Tech’s skilled players on the outside simply didn’t get many opportunities. Mangham had 42 yards on six carries and Cass Tech’s other touchdown.
A pair of busted coverages led to Fordson taking a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. Ajami found Allamy streaking behind Cass Tech’s secondary for a 77-yard catch and run and then fired an 8-yard touchdown pass to Hamid for the early lead.
After a long Mangham kickoff return for Cass Tech, Graham hit senior wide receiver Kyron McKinnie-Harper for a 6-yard score but missed the extra point to pull within 7-6. A muffed punt led to a 7-yard scoring pass from Ajami to Allamy to put Fordson up, 14-6, and it got the ball right back after Cass Tech couldn’t field a pooch kickoff.
With that possession in the second quarter, Ajami found Allamy on an 18-yard fade route for a touchdown to extend its lead to 20-6. On its next possession, Cass Tech mounted a drive capped-off by a 10-yard Mangham rushing score. Nichols punched in the two-point conversion to make it a one-possession game, but Fordson answered right back with a 12-yard score on a screen pass from Ajami to Hamid to lengthen Fordson’s lead to 27-14.
Fordson started the second half with a devastating 67-yard touchdown drive that chewed up roughly eight minutes of clock. It was capped by Wheeler's 11-yard scoring run to make it 34-14 for Fordson, meaning Cass Tech would probably have to play perfect the rest of the game to extend its season.
It didn’t, going three-and-out on its next possession and having its next drive end with Fordson senior defensive end Mohamed Basma intercepting a Graham pass. On the ensuing drive, Wheeler scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to provide the final scoring margin.
Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer.