DETROIT - Though head coach Jeff Olson didn't want to admit it directly, the Ishpeming High School football team had to take the speed, strength and overall talent of its state championship game opponent, Detroit Loyola, into consideration when playing defense at Ford Field on Saturday.
That meant more of a bend-don't-break philosophy instead of simply throwing every player at the point of attack. And like what happened all season, it was the correct adjustment that allowed the Hematites to capture their first title since 1979, a 20-14 win to capture the MHSAA Division 7 championship.
"We just wanted to keep the ball in front of us," said Hematites senior running back and linebacker Eric Kostreva during the postgame conference.
Ishpeming’s Eric Kostreva breaks out of the pack and heads upfield for a 52-yard run, setting up the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter against Detroit Loyola in the MHSAA Division 7 state football championship on Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit. (AP photo/The Detroit News, Daniel Mears)
And that was how Loyola had several wide-open pass plays, something uncharacteristic for the usually ball-hawking Ishpeming defense.
Another apparent defensive adjustment by the Hematites was concentrating on Bulldogs' all-state running back Keymonn'e Gabriel, who while finishing with 129 yards rushing, had just 17 yards on the ground until the final 30 seconds of the first half.
On the second-to-last play before halftime, Gabriel ripped off his first big run of 19 yards as Loyola tried to move the ball out of its own end as the half closed.
The Bulldogs apparently were able to figure out how to counter some of Ishpeming's strategy in the third and fourth quarters, but because of the Upper Peninsula team's ball-control offense, each team only had the ball three times during the entire second half.
On its first possession after the break, Loyola scored as the third quarter ended to take a 14-12 lead, and the second time drove the ball to the Ishpeming 8-yard-line before the Hematites defense stiffened on fourth down and didn't allow the Bulldogs to gain the half yard they needed to either have first-and-goal or score a touchdown.
On their final possession, Loyola had to move the ball 72 yards in 74 seconds, and not built to throw, made little progress trying to preserve the clock while trying to pass.
"We kept them from going outside, other than on that one touchdown," Olson said about Loyola's second TD when Gabriel ran around in the backfield, stopped, and moved outside up the sideline for a 20-yard TD.
10 yards at a time
Olson had to enjoy
Ishpeming's ball-control offense, but particularly in the first half, the Hematites maximized the time on their drives by barely making first down after first down.
On their three first-half possessions, IHS made six first downs, four by one extra yard - for example, one time when quarterback Alex Briones gained eight yards on third-and-7 - one by two extra yards and the oddball one by 50 yards when Kostreva ripped off his 55-yard TD for the game's first score.
In the second half, Ishpeming had a little more room to spare, but only by comparison, in another half-dozen first downs. There were two more by one extra yard, with the others by three, four, eight and 50 yards. That big one was Kostreva's other long run, a 60-yard gain on second-and-10, that got the Hematites to the Loyola 3 and set up his third TD two plays later.
Kostreva was down
On Kostreva's 55-yard TD less than four minutes into the game, replays from Fox Sports Detroit showed that the Ishpeming senior was really down at about the 2-yard-line when his knee hit the turf after he was caught from behind by Loyola's Anthony Frierson at the Bulldogs 5.
Even if marked that way, the Hematites would've had first-and-goal, and on their only two other possessions all game that got inside the Loyola 40, Ishpeming marched in for TDs.
Frierson was also the Bulldogs player who caught Kostreva on his other long run in the fourth quarter at the Loyola 3.
Injury costs Loyola
Detroit Loyola coach John Callahan lamented the absence of one of his two big defensive linemen, 6-foot-5, 275-pound Kajohn Armstrong, who was injured during the first half.
Like teammate and Associated Press Division 7-8 Player of the Year Malik McDowell, a 6-7, 290-pound behemoth, Armstrong is just a junior, but already being recruited by Big Ten schools, among others. Callahan, though, gave Ishpeming full credit for its win.
"We got outplayed today," he said. "Ishpeming played very well and came in ready to play. They demonstrated that from the very first snap.
"They kind of got after us, and at first we didn't respond. For the first time all year, we were the ones who sat back and waited to see what would happen. After that, it was a game."
Hematites get low
Gabriel inadvertently gave credit to one of the Hematites' key defensive strategies during the postgame conference.
"Their D-line went lower than our offensive line," he said when asked how the smaller Hematites controlled the line.
That was a theme Olson and his players have repeatedly said was the key to success for the Ishpeming running game, particularly in its five-game playoff run.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.