Caledonia was the latest team to learn just how tough it is to hold down the Belleville Tigers.
And quarterback Bryce Underwood, for that matter — the heralded 6-foot-3 sophomore guided Belleville to its second straight Michigan high school football Division 1 championship with a 35-17 victory over the Fighting Scots at Ford Field.
Belleville, able to overcome a 17-14 deficit late in the third quarter, completed a perfect 14-0 season despite the suspension, then firing, of coach Jermain Crowell.
Underwood did it not only with his arm, but also his long striding legs.
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A year ago as a freshman, Underwood threw five TD passes in a 55-33 win over Rochester Adams. In his second state final, he rushed for 149 yards on just 10 carries with a touchdown and went 15-for-25 through the air for another 155 yards and one TD.
“I was just taking what they give me,” Underwood said. “I’d say being back on this field. ... I really didn’t get nervous. I knew what I had to do.”
The Tigers, in fact, put together an overall and effective run game as well, racking up 288 yards to finish with 443 yards of total offense.
“He’s a five-star kid. He’s the No. 1 kid in his class,” Caledonia coach Derek Pennington said. “He’s 6-4. I mean, he’s a great player. We had a bunch of kids from Caledonia chasing him around. Hats off to him. He’s got a bright future.”
The game-clinching touchdown came with 8:34 left in the final quarter when Underwood ran 48 yards to put the Tigers up by two scores, 28-17. That followed a 10-yard run by Jeremiah Beasley on fourth-and-2 at midfield.
“There was no doubt we were going to run the ball,” Belleville interim coach Dejuan Rogers said.
The Tigers then put an exclamation point on the victory with just 3:50 remaining when Underwood hit Mychal Yharbrough for a 25-yard TD to complete the scoring.
“We just wanted to win, it’s a long season,” said Rogers, who took over for the Tigers just beofore the Tigers’ playoff run after Crowell was suspended following accusations of undue influence violations. The MHSAA has since suspended Crowell for at least two seasons in all sports. “It was a normal week. (Kyle) Short takes care of the offense, (Bill) Sheridan and myself, and coach Rio (Mario Steward) take care of the defense. We’re just playing accordingly and team was just ready to go.”
Both teams were unable to convert on fourth downs to start the third quarter, however, as Belleville’s James Robinson tackled Justice Reed for a 3-yard loss at the Belleville 49, and Underwood threw incomplete on fourth-and-14 at the Caledonia 35.
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But Caledonia, behind the running of senior quarterback Mason McKenzie, got down to the Belleville 5 on its next possession before settling for a 22-yard Luke Vogler field goal to go back up 17-14 with 2:06 to go in the third.
The Caledonia lead didn’t last long, however, as the Tigers’ Andre Thomas ripped off a 36-yard TD run for a 21-17 advantage with 39 seconds to go in the third after Underwood had gained 40 on a keeper on the previous play.
Despite being the underdog, Caledonia proved it could go toe-to-toe with the Tigers during the first half, heading to intermission tied at 14.
The Fighting Scots got on the board first with 5:27 left in the first quarter on Brock Townsend’s 1-yard TD run to cap a seven-play, 66-yard drive.
But Belleville responded with a seven-play, 80-yard drive with Colbey Reed barreling through a host of Caledonia tacklers and into the end zone for a 38-yard TD to tie it at 7 with 3:57 to go in the first.
The Fighting Scots had another scoring threat thwarted with 10:47 to go in the second when Adrian Walker intercepted a McKenzie pass just outside the end zone.
Belleville, however, couldn’t take advantage of the turnover and Caledonia came back to take a 14-7 lead on another 1-yard TD run by Townsend to cap an eight-play, 61-yard drive with 3:48 remaining in the half.
The Fighting Scots were knocking on the door once again near the end of the half, getting down to the Belleville 27, but McKenzie was sacked on fourth-and-4 by Lamar Fairfax for a 20-yard loss with 1:12 remaining.
Taking over with prime field position at his own 47, Underwood made the Scots pay, hitting Walker for 24 yards, Dennis Simes for 13 and Dennis Crawford for another 27 during the final minute before connecting with Walker on a 7-yard TD strike with only 15 seconds left to make it 14-14.
“Probably the play that flipped the game was when we were up 14-7 and we took a timeout because we wanted to get a shot down the field and we didn’t pick up a blitz and took a sack and they ended up scoring right before the half,” Pennington said. “I think that gave them a lot of momentum.”
Underwood was 11-for-17 passing for 117 yards in the first half, and the Tigers rushed for 99 for a total of 216, while Caledonia rushed for 130 yards with McKenzie going for 78 on 12 carries.
McKenzie, the 6-foot, 180-pound senior, carried most of Caledonia’s offense throughout the game, rushing for 134 yards on 23 carries. He added 77 yards passing, going 6-for-18 with a pair of interceptions.
Caledonia, which last won a state championship in 2005 in Division 3, ended its season at 12-2.
“The second half they wore us down with their size," Pennington said. “They made a few plays when they needed them and they’ve got some tremendous athletes, let’s face it. There’s a lot of good players out there. ... We needed to finish a few drives early in the game and we didn’t. I’m proud of my kids, proud of the effort they made. Great group, won 12 games and super proud of them.”
Meanwhile, Underwood once again starred under the bright lights of Ford Field.
“Great player, young guy with all he’s got, two championships and he’s got a lot on his plate,” Rogers said. “Everybody is watching him and just keep his composure ... and not always doing the big play, not the 70 or 80 touchdowns, he just does what he’s asked.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: MHSAA football finals: Belleville wraps up back-to-back D-1 titles