Clinton Township — Scott Merchant knew the rivalry between Clinton Township Chippewa Valley and Macomb Dakota would be decided by which team controlled the running game, and the veteran coach made that a point of emphasis in practice.
And did it ever pay off during Chippewa Valley's 27-21 victory on Friday — at least in the first half.
While it seemed as if Chippewa Valley would run away with the victory, holding a 27-7 lead at halftime, everything changed after Dakota coach Greg Baur spoke with his team in the locker room.
“We were going to fight; we were going to have heart,” Baur said. “I didn’t care about wins and losses. I wanted to see them fight, and they damn near won the game.”
Having mounted an impressive comeback but still down 27-21, Dakota had the ball on fourth-and-2 at the 10-yard line with 11.8 seconds remaining.
Junior quarterback Zach Droski dropped back and threw a pass up for junior wide receiver Clinton Roberson, who made a play on the ball, but it was slapped out of his hands at the last moment by junior defensive back Quillen Howze.
“I had to step up and come up clutch to help my team out,” Howze said. “I was nervous. When it comes down to it, the best player wins.”
Chippewa Valley (5-0, 3-0 MAC Red) nearly fell apart, but was able to secure the victory over Dakota (3-2, 2-1) in its homecoming game.
“It doesn’t matter how you win, as long as you can pull it out,” Merchant said. “I’ll take an ugly win anytime.”
Even though Chippewa Valley struggled in the second half — throwing an interception and losing a fumble — Merchant was proud of the offense through the first 24 minutes.
On the fourth play of Chippewa Valley’s opening drive, senior running back Myren Harris broke loose for a 43-yard touchdown to give his squad an early 7-0 lead.
Nobody touched him.
Turns out, Harris did that twice more in the first half. He finished with 24 carries for 122 yards and three scores.
“I’m never going to credit myself, so I have to give credit to the offensive line,” Harris said. “I tell the offensive line before every game, ‘You trust me; I trust you. You open the holes, I’m going to run through them.'”
While Harris stole the spotlight, it was senior quarterback Josh Kulka who often set him up.
Kulka completed a 40-yard pass to senior receiver Corey Anderson II with just 33 seconds left in the first quarter. After letting the clock run down, the senior signal caller let his back take the carry for the first play of the second quarter.
For his second touchdown on his seventh carry, Harris scored from 14 yards out to give Chippewa Valley a 14-0 lead. He logged his third touchdown with 26 seconds remaining in the first half on a 4-yard run.
The point-after-attempt from kicker Jacob Mudd was no good, leaving the score at 27-7 in favor of Chippewa Valley at halftime.
“In the first half, we played a great game offensively,” Merchant said. “Second half, we turned the ball over twice.”
Dakota’s only score in the first half came on a 32-yard carry from sophomore running back Caiden Sloan with 5:59 left in the first quarter. The touchdown from the wildcat formation chopped the lead in half, but Kulka responded immediately.
Unlike in most situations, Merchant called for his offense to spread the field. There were four receivers and nobody in the backfield.
Kulka surveyed his options, took the time he needed and found junior wide receiver Darrel Hawkins for an 80-yard touchdown for a 21-7 lead just 13 seconds after Dakota found the end zone.
The senior starting the fifth game of his varsity career was 6-of-7 for 196 yards and one touchdown in the first half.
Kulka finished with 238 yards, one touchdown and one interception on 9-of-12 passing. He also fumbled once.
Dakota threatened in the third quarter, beginning with an interception of Kulka by junior defensive back De’Javion Stepney. The turnover resulted in a touchdown to trim Chippewa Valley’s margin to 27-14.
Droski, the junior quarterback, scrambled in the pocket and lofted a pass for Roberson, who hauled in the ball for a score with 6:12 left in the third quarter.
“We haven’t thrown an interception all season,” Merchant said. “You can’t turn the ball over against a good team. It almost came back to bite us.”
After allowing the game to turn into a two-score contest, Chippewa Valley put its foot on the gas pedal — until Dakota’s defense stepped up in the clutch.
In a third-and-3 situation from his own 31-yard line, Kulka zipped a pass to Hawkins for a 30-yard gain, putting the Big Reds in enemy territory as the third quarter came to a close.
Inside the 5-yard line and threatening to put the victory away, Kulka fumbled. It was picked up by Dakota junior linebacker Jack Murray, and Dakota began driving with less than 7 minutes to play.
The drive ended in a touchdown, as Stepney scored from 2 yards out to cut Chippewa Valley’s lead to six points with 2:24 remaining.
The ensuing onside kick went out of bounds to give the ball to Chippewa Valley, but a three-and-out put the ball back in the hands of Dakota with 1:02 remaining.
Chippewa Valley’s defense, however, stepped up on the final play.
Droski finished 9-of-18 passing for 100 yards and one touchdown. Stepney had 11 carries for 52 yards and a score, while backup running back Uko Umana added 13 carries for 90 yards.
“It gives us a lot to work on,” Merchant said. “It was a hard-fought battle, we were tested. It’ll make us better in the long run.”
Evan Petzold is a freelance writer.