Brighton — Brian Lemons is living the dream as a high school football coach, getting his Brighton team ready for the Division 1 state championship game against Davison on Saturday at Ford Field.
Lemons helped put Brighton (11-2) in this position with an impressive game plan, which his players executed to near perfection in pulling off one of the biggest upsets in state playoff history over Belleville last weekend.
Belleville was loaded with Power Five-caliber players, including a secondary that included a pair of Big Ten recruits in Andre Seldon (Michigan) and Brenden Deasfernandes (Iowa); a four-star junior linebacker in Jamari Buddin, who has offers from Michigan, Penn State and Florida State; and an offensive line consisting of four-star junior Damon Payne, who received an offer from Georgia while in eighth grade, Coleon Smith (Indiana) and junior Ramier Lewis, who has an offer from Michigan.
But in last week’s semifinal, Belleville fell victim to the underdog’s strategy that helped Brighton to a near 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession (30:45-17:15) in a 22-19 victory, sending the Livingston County school to Ford Field in search of its first state championship.
Colby Newburg and Nick Nemecek are two of the Brighton heroes in this playoff run. Against Belleville the pair made the play heard round the state, with Newburg changing direction to get away from a pass rush, rolling left toward the sideline and throwing across his body in the direction of Nemecek, who jumped and grabbed the ball while between two defenders for a 16-yard touchdown with 50 seconds left. That score proved to be the difference in Brighton’s huge upset.
“I faked a handoff to Nick and then I rolled right, and nobody was open, so I saw guys coming and took off to the left and Nick started waiving at me, so I tried to square up my shoulders and then just kind of lofted it up to him,” Newburg said. “As a running back, you’re not expected to do that, but he played receiver last year, so he definitely had the capability of doing it.”
Said Nemecek: “I still can’t believe I made that play. It was crazy. I had the whole team mob me. Ruben (receiver Salinas) tackled me. It was just incredible. … Last week was awesome, the coolest experience I’ve had, but I’m sure Ford Field will even be better.”
No doubt, Newburg is enjoying the run to Ford Field.
“This is really extra special since I’ve been growing up with these guys since the second grade, just playing football with them,” said Newburg, who has rushed for more than 1,200 yards and 18 TDs, and thrown for nearly 1,400 yards and 18 scores, completing 63 percent of his passes. “Freshman year we all talked about winning the state title and now it’s within reach, so it’s crazy.”
Brighton’s final drive was aided by a Belleville personal foul, which moved the ball into Belleville territory and then a pass interference call, wiping out an interception.
And about that game plan?
“I noticed that in the two season openers when we played them (34-31 loss in 2017, 40-35 loss in 2018) we were able to move the ball and score against them but maybe we did it too fast,” Lemons said. “So I thought we could still move the ball on them, but this time we wanted to use the clock more to keep possession of it and keep it away from them.”
The ball must be snapped within 40 seconds after the conclusion of the previous play and Brighton had no problems getting it off within 25 seconds in past games. But this time Lemons wanted every possible second run off before the snap.
Brighton players needed time to get used to Lemons’ plan.
“It’s hard,” Newburg said. “We just want to get the plays off every 15 seconds, but they told us to get to the line fast and if we have to check a play, check a play. But half the time I was just there waiting. Mentally, it was kind of hard because I just want to go, go, go. We used the whole time and it worked. They are a big-play team and we tried to keep them off the field.
“Our O-line wasn’t scared of their big recruits at all. We put a lot of work in the offseason to get them ready for that. They’re a super strong group, a tight group, and they have good chemistry where they know what each other is going to do every play and that helps. They also got low on their big guys and did a good job of driving them back. I felt our backs ran hard to get the extra yards, too, which was important.”
Newburg can’t wait for Saturday.
“It’s going to be super cool playing on an NFL field,” Newburg said. “Emotions are going to be high, but just being with my brothers will help ease things for me. We all talked about winning a district title and going from there. We’re just living the dream now.”
Lemons said it has been a special time for the Brighton community, and he and his assistants are working hard with the players to finish the job, so they can bring home Brighton’s first state championship trophy.
“The thing that is really special about this is how involved and how passionate our entire community is,” Lemons said. “There’s a vibe going throughout town that I haven’t seen in my five years. Everyone is all in.
“It’s a very special feeling, but we have to finish this thing and that’s probably the piece that everyone understands.
“We have 40-plus seniors and we’ve had some big squads the last few years so having 40 seniors isn’t shocking to us. But right now we have the right 40 seniors because they are doing a great job of leading these guys.”
Brighton’s offense is capable of putting up big numbers with Newburg and Nemecek being joined by 6-foot-3 receiver Ruben Salinas, who has 4.5 speed, and Air Force tackle Nate Hoffman up front. But the defense is equally impressive, led by 6-1, 215-pound linebacker Cole Riddle.
“We have a couple of guys on defense that have been really consistent and do the job every week, but Cole is at the top of that list,” Lemons said. “He’s been the defensive leader and he shows up every day to practice to get better. I think the other guys on our squad see it and they try to duplicate that type of passion.”
All games at Ford Field
Division 8: Beal City (12-1) vs. Reading (12-1), 10 a.m. (FSD)
Division 2: Muskegon Mona Shores (11-2) vs. Detroit King (10-2), 1 p.m. (FSD)
Division 6: Maple City Glen Lake (12-1) vs. Monroe St. Mary CC (11-1), 4:30 p.m. (FSD Plus)
Division 4: Grand Rapids CC (12-1) vs. Detroit Country Day (13-0), 7:30 p.m. (FSD Plus)
Division 7: Pewamo-Westphalia (13-0) vs. Jackson Lumen Christi (12-0), 10 a.m. (FSD)
Division 1: Brighton (11-2) vs. Davison (11-2), 1 p.m. (FSD)
Division 5: Lansing Catholic (12-1) vs. Almont (13-0), 4:30 p.m. (FSD Plus)
Division 3: Muskegon (13-0) vs. River Rouge (12-1), 7:30 p.m. (FSD Plus)