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Protecting the house: But Negaunee Miners do it on the road again with last-gasp defensive stand in 20-19 victory over Calumet

The Negaunee football team celebrates with the MHSAA Division 6 district championship trophy after defeating Calumet 20-19 on Friday in Calumet. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by Adam Niemi)

“It had all the elements of a great November high school football game in the U.P.” — Paul Jacobson, head coach, Negaunee High School football

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CALUMET — Negaunee held off a last-minute Calumet drive for a fourth-down stop and a 20-19 victory in a third-round district championship football game of the MHSAA Division 6 playoffs on Friday night.

This marked the third straight road playoff victory for the Miners, who earlier defeated Gladstone 28-14 on Oct. 30 and Westwood 42-14 on Nov. 6.

On Friday in Calumet, the game was on the line with just 14 seconds left as the Copper Kings (4-4) faced 4th-down-and-8 at the Negaunee 25-yard line.

Calumet quarterback Paul Sturos took the snap, stepped back, moved right and threw a pass to receiver Dryden Nelson, who hauled in the ball but slipped out of bounds just short of the first-down line.

Game over.

The Miners ran off the field in a jubilant celebration.

“It had all the elements of a great November high school football game in the (Upper Peninsula),” Negaunee head coach Paul Jacobson said. “It was the battle of two great teams going at it head to head.”

Negaunee (6-3) advances to the regionals as one of eight teams left in the state in Division 6 and will face Grayling, which defeated Boyne City 28-20 on Saturday. The Miners will make their fourth straight trip in the playoffs as again they will be the team with fewer playoff points in their matchup.

Friday’s game was a battle that really began on the opening possession that was in the hands of the Copper Kings. With 5:16 left in the opening quarter, Sturos took charge and ran it past the goal line on a 17-yard scoring run for a 7-0 lead.

Neguanee answered on its first drive, taking over at their own 37. They chipped away with two first downs and entered Calumet’s side of the field. With 1:45 left in the first, Lukas Nelson took it to the house with a 16-yard touchdown run, but with a missed extra point, the Kings clung to a 7-6 lead after one period.

Calumet lost the ball on downs with about eight minutes left in the second stanza, Negaunee taking over at their own 30.

In a similar fashion to their first drive, the Miners were methodical and used their big linemen to move the ball up the field bit by bit. With four minutes to go in the half and 1st-and-10 at Calumet’s 20, Nelson busted up the middle to get to the 1-yard line. Three plays later he found the end zone, and with what would prove to be a crucial two-point conversion, Negaunee led 14-7.

But the Copper Kings were not done.

After moving the ball from their 37 to the Miners 25, there was less than a minute left before halftime. On 2nd-and-10, Sturos dropped backed and dodged a pair of defenders, lofting a “Hail Mary” pass to the end zone and into the outstretched arms of receiver Dean Loukus. But they missed the extra point as Negaunee clung to a 14-13 halftime advantage.

“I told our guys to keep fighting at halftime,” said Calumet acting head coach Josh Frantti, who led the team on Friday with head coach John Croze out sick.

The Copper Kings heeded Frantti’s call as they put together another scoring drive in the third on Dryden Nelson’s TD scamper with 5:17 to go to retake a 19-14 lead after the two-point conversion try failed.

The game’s only turnover came early in the fourth quarter and proved to be a game-changer. With 10:09 left, Sturos fumbled the ball and the Miners’ Parker Cain jumped on it. Neguanee then began an 80-yard march up the field.

On 4th-and-6 at the Calumet 8-yard line with just three minutes to go and the tension mounting, NHS quarterback Gerald Johnson took the snap and looked north, finding 6-foot-5 Eli Luokkala in the middle of the field for a TD. The two-point attempt failed but still left Negaunee holding onto what would prove to be the final one-point lead after the Copper Kings’ final drive crumbled.

“It was a great battle,” Frantti said. “We are two great programs and we’ve met in the playoffs lots of years and it is always a fun battle like this.

“Our kids played hard. It was a one-point game and we came out on the short end. The whole team, especially the seniors, did a great job for us tonight.”

Negaunee’s Jacobson echoed a similar sentiment.

“I am so proud of my players,” said Jacobson, now in his 21st year at Negaunee that has included the 2002 state championship in Division 6. “I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys. I am proud of everybody.”

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