MHSAA Division 6 football: Negaunee faces three-time defending state champions Ithaca in Division 6 regional

NEGAUNEE – Overconfidence will not be a problem for the Negaunee High School football team.

Not that the Miners have ever been known to overlook an opponent, but NHS will face its toughest challenge possibly in the 14 years that head coach Paul Jacobson has been at the helm.

Ithaca is not only the three-time defending MHSAA Division 6 state champion, but the Yellowjackets are working on a 53-game winning streak, which at the end of the regular season was called the second longest in the nation.

The winner of Saturday’s 1 p.m. game in Ithaca will probably be installed as the odds-on favorite to win the state title two weeks from today, the day after Thanksgiving at Ford Field in Detroit.

Saturday’s task looks daunting even for a Negaunee team that is 10-1 and only had two close games this fall – a season-opening 36-30 victory over Manistique and a 28-24 loss to undefeated Ishpeming.

But Jacobson feels his team is up to the task. And he should know – his Miners have made a dozen playoff appearances in those 14 years, winning 17 postseason games and capturing the Div. 6 title in 2002.

“We’ve got a pretty focused bunch of guys right now,” the coach said. “We talk a lot about how we were here last year (in the regional finals).

“So it’s the same situation, just a different opponent. When you get to the ‘Elite Eight,’ there are no slackers left.”

Last year, Shelby won in Negaunee, 26-22, in the regional final before falling a week later to Ithaca, 31-14, in the state semifinals.

Now is not time to reinvent the wheel, according to Jacobson.

“We have to stick to what we do best,” Jacobson said. “Of course, you have to have some wrinkles, just so you’re not too predictable, but you’ve got to be careful. You want your guys to be able to play without thinking too much.

“And anyway, you can’t get this far without doing the basics the right way.”

Ithaca 10th-year head coach Terry Hessbrook sees potential problems with a school they’ve never played before.

“Negaunee is similar to (Maple City) Glen Lake,” he said about a team the Yellowjackets defeated 42-7 in the district finals last weekend. “Their overall size is a major concern.”

He cited the Miners’ offensive line that averages nearly 250 pounds across.

“And obviously, their No. 20, (Tyler) LaJoie, is a special football player, though they’re not a one-trick pony,” Hessbrook said.

He pointed out senior Tyler Jandron as a potent receiver and also mentioned senior Tyler Windahl as another challenge at running back.

While LaJoie had a Mid-Peninsula Conference leading 1,312 yards rushing in the regular season and Negaunee was a dominant force in most games, the Yellowjackets put up numbers that look like they came out of a video game.

In 11 games, Ithaca has outscored its opponents 586-52 – an average score of 53-5 – and won every game by at least the running-clock threshold of 35 points.

Much of Ithaca’s potency comes via an explosive passing attack, something unusual for a smaller school.

University of Toledo-bound quarterback Travis Smith has numbers even an NFL Hall of Famer might envy – he’s completed 129 of 172 passes (75 percent) for 2,356 yards, 30 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Like a lot of starters on successful teams, he’s played sparingly in the second half nearly every week.

In three years as signal caller – he moved from wide receiver in Game 1 as a sophomore when the original starting QB was injured – the Jackets’ 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior has accumulated 9,384 total yards passing, rushing and receiving in 39 games. He’s also been responsible for 139 TDs – 92 passing and 47 rushing.

“He’s going to be a quarterback at Toledo for a reason,” Jacobson said. “He throws a good ball and he makes a lot of quick passes. He also has a good supporting cast.”

Three senior receivers – Logan Hessbrook, the coach’s nephew, Josh Hafner and Eli Villalobos – each have at least 32 catches and 547 yards, while Smith’s brother, sophomore Jacob Smith, added 23 receptions for 388 yards. Senior fullback Bryan Shaw, 5-11 and 220 pounds, pounded out 770 yards on the ground, gaining nearly nine yards per attempt.