It seemed, once again, that the East Lansing Trojans were on course to dispatch the obstacle before them.
After a season chock full of adversity — the season lurched along, starting and stopping, due to Covid-19 — in a game without its usual starting quarterback and a trip to the state semifinals on the line, it looked like the Trojans were poised to overcome a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit against the Muskegon Mona Shores Sailors.
With the clock running under 30 seconds, and the Trojans getting in range for a game-winning field goal attempt, backup quarterback Brevin Jackson dropped back and had his pass batted up in the air and intercepted. The Sailors defensive lineman hustled down the sideline deep into Trojan territory. And, just a few plays later, Muskegon Mona Shores kicked a game-winning field goal of their own, as time expired.
East Lansing’s furious comeback fell just short against Muskegon Mona Shores (10-0) on Saturday afternoon, ending the Trojans’ (8-1) perfect season in the regional finals, 24-21.
“It was a great football game,” Head Coach Bill Feraco said after the game. “We felt we could do some things offensively, I thought we played very, very well defensively. … We came back and fought, and a coach can’t ask for any more than that.”
East Lansing, yet-unbeaten entering Saturday and with a loaded senior class well aware of the rare opportunity before them, started hot.
After winning the coin toss and kicking off to the Sailors, the Trojans forced a quick punt. Then, on the first play from scrimmage for the Trojan offense, Jackson faked a handoff, rolled to his right and hit Mason Woods in stride behind the defense down the right sideline for a touchdown. Minutes into the game, East Lansing led, 7-0.
For the remainder of the first quarter, the two teams traded possessions without notably threatening to score. On the first play of the second quarter, the Sailors faced a 3rd and 1 and were stuffed for a loss, forced to punt the ball back to the Trojans. Once East Lansing took possession back, early in the second quarter, the Trojans went more than seven minutes without relinquishing it.
Starting at its own 26, East Lansing steadily marched the ball down the field, leaning on running backs Asher Gregory and Alex Hosey, plus some clutch running from Jackson, bleeding the clock as the drive dragged on. The Trojans got as close as the Muskegon Mona Shores 13-yard line, before a field goal attempt was backed up due to a false start. Feraco opted to go for it on fourth down. East Lansing failed to convert.
“Can’t give away points, as we did,” Feraco said. “Got down there a couple times and just didn’t push it in. That’s part of — objectively, you can add and subtract all you want, but it was a heck of a game.”
On the next play, the first of the Sailors ensuing offensive possession, Brady Rose ran 82 yards straight through the heart of the East Lansing defense for a touchdown, tying the game at 7 before halftime. The Trojans had a chance to respond with a big play of their own to tie the game, as tight end Evan Boyd ran open deep — but he slowed his route and slightly misread the throw as it just sailed by his outstretched fingers, leaving the score tied at halftime.
The third quarter went much the same as the second: Both teams mostly mired down offensively, looking for success running the ball and getting mixed results. But, after getting the ball with about seven minutes remaining in the third, the Sailors marched down the field without passing and took a 14-7 lead.
East Lansing’s offense, which hadn’t scored since its first play, drove down the field, needing some points to answer. Getting inside the opponents 5-yard line, it looked like the Trojans were poised to score. But four straight attempts to find the endzone come up empty and the Trojans turned it over on downs.
“The adage is,” Feraco said, “when the opponent scores, you need to answer that score with some score of your own, whether it’s a field goal or a touchdown, we weren’t able to do that in the sequence we would’ve liked, but we did it.”
The Sailors took the ball back and, facing a 3rd and 1 early in the fourth quarter, called a quarterback draw and with another scamper down the middle, the Trojans trailed, 21-7, with 10:25 left in the game.
To that point, East Lansing’s offense had managed just a handful of sustained drives since the big play to begin, and was stymied repeatedly when it came close to scoring. But playing with a lead, the Sailors changed their pass coverage scheme, allowing the Trojans to throw it around the yard.
Andrel Anthony Jr. — the star senior wideout who signed to play at Michigan next year — who hadn’t caught a pass all game, suddenly popped up for several key catches. Evan Boyd started finding space underneath and picked up chunk yardage through the air.
With 7:48 remaining, Jackson ran in a touchdown on a keeper, closing the Sailors’ lead to a touchdown.
After a quick defensive stop, the offense got the ball back with 4:12 remaining. In less than two minutes, the Trojans drove half the length of the field to score, this time with Gregory punching in the score.
As Gregory ran back to the sideline, Anthony ran out to celebrate, hollering “let’s go, A-G” at his teammate.
Touchdown! Asher Gregory punches it in from 3 yards out and the PAT makes it 21-21.— Andrew E. Graham ? (@AndrewEdGraham) January 9, 2021
2:16 left in regulation. Trojans trailed by two touchdowns with about 10 minutes to play ? pic.twitter.com/o7TMN3wibV
After trailing by 14-points with less than a quarter remaining, the Trojans had tied the game, 21-21, with 2:16 left.
All the Trojans needed to have a shot at an improbable victory was a quick defensive stop, which is exactly what it got. The defense swarmed the line of scrimmage, the likes of Sebastian Smith, Nick Pulley and Ethan Boyd making plays in the backfield, and with the help of a holding penalty, the Trojans got their offense the ball back with :48 to play.
With two timeouts remaining, the Trojans started to move.
First, Jackson completed to Evan Boyd. Timeout.
Then, Jackson completed to him again. The Trojans hurried to the line of scrimmage, not wanting to burn a timeout. East Lansing snapped it with around 20 seconds on the clock.
Jackson dropped back. His pass was intercepted. The Sailors ran three plays, kicked a field goal, and got on the buses back to Muskegon with the regional trophy and a trip to Ford Field next weekend.
“There were some things they were doing coverage-wise that we could take advantage of,” Feraco said. “We had it open and their kid made a nice play tipping the ball, and the other kid made a nice play intercepting the ball.”
And the Trojans, who had yet failed to conquer anything before them, couldn’t overcome the last little bit of adversity. Following the trophy presentation, Feraco took his team to the end zone and addressed them one last time. As the sullen, tear-streaked faces of his players hung, eyes fixed on cleats, he tried to remind them of a bigger picture.
Said Feraco: “The fact of the matter is, is that we had a great season. You guys did a great job, in all facets. Not only on the field, but in all facets. Didn’t go our way. And I have no explanation, I can’t tell you why. You’re just going to have to understand, in this whole big deal, this is just a little thing. If this is the worst thing that happens to you guys, you’re going to have great lives. And I’m not smart enough to tell you what points in your lives that this experience, this year, is going to make you stronger and move forward when adversity hits. Because adversity is going to hit. From the bottom of my heart, it was an honor to be associated with all of you.”