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Trench warfare: Grayling runs wild in 56-26 Division 6 football playoff win over Negaunee Miners

Negaunee’s Bryce Dunstan, right, and an unidentified Miners teammate try to tackle Grayling’s David Millikin, front left, during their MHSAA Division 6 regional championship football game played in Grayling on Saturday. (Traverse City Record-Eagle photo by James Cook)

GRAYLING — It figures this one would be decided in the trenches.

Grayling ran wild behind its big offensive line as the Vikings defeated Negaunee 56-26 in a meeting between two head coaches who used to block for Central Michigan University.

The Miners’ Paul Jacobson and Grayling’s Eric Tunney didn’t play at CMU at the same time, but met up on the Vikings’ frozen field Saturday afternoon with the MHSAA Division 6 regional championship on the line at Donald L. Ferguson Field.

David Millikin feasted more than anyone, taking full advantage of large gaps created by the Vikings offensive line to gain 268 yards on 18 carries, scoring five touchdowns. Millikin’s five TDs covered a combined 174 yards.

Millikin has amassed 740 yards and 15 touchdowns in four playoff games alone. His 1,525 yards are only 32 shy of the Vikings school record set by Joey Bancroft in 2005. He already has the school rushing TD mark with 29.

Negaunee's Lukas Nelson, center, runs the ball against Grayling during their MHSAA Division 6 regional championship football game played in Grayling on Saturday. (Traverse City Record-Eagle photo by James Cook)

Negaunee, which ended its season at 6-4 overall, equaled its regular-season win total with three postseason victories, avenging regular-season losses to Gladstone and Westwood in the playoffs, plus downing Calumet for a district championship.

“We didn’t tackle well and you can’t make mistakes and we made mistakes throughout the stretch,” Jacobson said. “And against good teams, you can’t do that and expect to win. I’m proud of our guys and they continued to battle.”

It’s longest playoff run in the history of the program at Grayling (7-3).

Millikin scored Grayling’s first three TDs — on runs of 37, 3 and 43 yards — for a 21-6 lead. Dylan Cragg set up the third one with a 15-yard run on a fake punt near midfield.

“The linemen were creating gaps perfectly,” Millikin said. “It was just working for us. The ground wasn’t a factor at all. I thought it was going to be rough, but we had a lot of traction. It was great.”

Negaunee drew

to within 21-12 by halftime on TD runs of 1 and 11 yards by Lukas Nelson.

The Miners caught a break just before halftime when referees lost track of what down it was and gave Negaunee an extra play that ended up being a punt for a net gain of 26 yards instead of a turnover on downs. Without the punt, Grayling would have had 14 seconds and a shorter field to work with from the Negaunee 44 instead of three seconds to go from their own 30.

“Their biggest thing was Millikin at tailback was pretty good,” Jacobson said. “I mean, he’s good. And he earned every bit that he got today.”

Grayling’s stars all came through to lead the Vikings to the 30-point win that puts them in the state semifinals on Saturday at Montague, which beat Montrose 41-16.

Hunter Ventline completed 5 of 7 passes for 62 yards and a TD and ran for 25 yards and a score as Grayling painted the yard lines orange.

“Definitely our O-line, staying in there and doing their job,” Ventline said about the key to his team’s success on offense. “Negaunee, they have a pretty tough D-line, but our O-line stuck in there and were doing their jobs and opening up the running game for David.”

The Miners obviously scouted the Vikings well, and ran the opposite way from defensive end Drew Kanary the entire first half. He still ended the game with six tackles anyway, and caught two passes for 31 yards and a TD after receiving an offer from Northwood University this week.

“We knew we were the underdogs,” Kanary said. “Nobody picked us to win this game. It’s been like that the whole season, really. We know we had to come out and fight, and that’s what we did. We knew we had to punch them in the mouth and get momentum going. Once we started scoring, we just rolled with it.”

Negaunee quarterback Gerald Johnson tossed an 8-yard TD pass to Eli Luokkala and Nash Hillier struck on a 1-yard TD run sandwiched around Millikin’s fifth TD for the day, a 48-yarder.

The schools’ only other meeting came in 2009, when the Miners claimed a 30-28 win in a Division 5 playoff opener. Grayling doubled that scoring output as only one possession didn’t produce a TD.

“We started off Aug. 10,” Jacobson said. “We got shut down four days later for three weeks, we come back and we’re on for five weeks. We get shut down for two weeks. We’re on for three weeks to get shut down for eight weeks or 63 days, wherever the heck it was.

“We’re back on for two days. The ups and downs with these guys and to be able to stick together — and it’s not just my guys but you know Grayling and anybody that’s still able to play this game in January, knows what I’m talking about — these kids what they’ve been through brings normalcy to this chaotic 2020 (and now 2021) that we’ve had.”

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