ESCANABA - It was all about opportunity for the Escanaba Eskymos, Friday night as they won the final home game of the season 41-16 over rival Gladstone.
Switching ball carries like a slot machine, the Eskymos threw a wave of talented athletes at the Braves, who will no doubt see the numbers 20, 30, 5, 3 and 8 spinning in their heads for some time after the Eskymos racked up 347 rushing yards in the victory.
The game was a breakthrough party for players like TJ Myrick and Bryan Kwarciany at receiver, Ryan Wendt at safety and Corey McInerney at tailback and each made the most of their chances.
Escanaba quarterback Travis Heller runs the ball during the first half of Friday night’s 41-16 Great Northern Conference victory over Gladstone.
A tight game early on, Escanaba pulled away in a wild final two minutes of the second half.
Down 8-7 with just over two minutes remaining, Escanaba got the ball on the Braves' 36 yard line after a monster return from McInerney. Quarterback Travis Heller found Cam Beversluis on a short drop-off, Ryan Wendrick tore to the left for 15 yards and Heller found McInerney in the end-zone on a 16-yard pass as Escanaba went up 14-8.
The Braves then went three-and-out, losing five yards in the process and Escanaba got the ball back with just over a minute remaining, starting from its 43. Heller found Beversluis and TJ Myrick on consecutive passes to get down to the Braves 20 and with seven seconds in the half, Heller lobbed a pass over Braves defender Jeff King's head to Beversluis in the back of the end zone as Esky rolled into halftime with a 21-8 lead, just like that.
McInerney stepped up in a big way in his first major action of the season, catching two passes for 33 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 104 yards and another score.
"We had a lot of guys step up tonight," said Esky coach Jim Hansen. "They're guys that have been working their butts off in practice and we wanted to give them an opportunity, and they made the most of it. It was good to see a lot of guys have their hard work pay off for them in an individual way."
Wendt, playing at safety intercepted a pass in the end-zone to halt one Braves drive and Myrick, usually limited to his role as kicker, caught two passes for 33 yards and a touchdown. Kwarciany also caught a pass for six yards.
At running back, seven different Eskymos carried the ball.
"We definitely established the run dominantly," said Heller. "We ran the ball quite well, better than we have all season, but we still could have been better."
Both Heller and Hansen were quick to point out the flaws in Esky's offense - two fumbles and some missed blocks stalled drives.
"(the win) feels pretty good, but we're definitely not satisfied," Heller said. "We could have played a lot better, could have put a lot more points on the board and there should have been a lot less points scored on (Gladstone's) side of the ball. We just need to sharpen it up if we want to win our last two games."
The Braves held their own early on. They were missing starting tailback Riley Ballard from the start, as he suffered a concussion in practice. But defensively they began strong, and running back's Tyler Wells and Justin Jurek held their own.
On Gladstone's first possession, they drove down to Escanaba's 14-yard line, converting on one fourth down before eventually turning the ball over on downs. It may have set the tone.
"It's been our Achilles heel all year offensively," lamented Braves coach Cody Kangas. "We drive the field, do a good job, get inside the 20 and we just kind of stall. Each and every week we tell those guys, we gotta move the ball in the red zone.
"Overall, we did lose, and as coaches we know its heartbreaking to lose to Escanaba, but we do see a lot of good coming out of this game as far as what we can do and what we can improve on."
The Braves also lost starting quarterback Sam Pouliot midway through the game with an apparent leg injury. Jared Hunter replaced him under center and did a decent job airing it out to three different receivers.
Offensively, Wells led the way for Gladstone, rushing for 119 yards on 17 carries.
Beversluis left the game in the second half with a calf injury and will be evaluated.
Escanaba (2-5) heads to Iron Mountain next week while Gladstone (0-7) hosts Kingsford in the Braves' home finale.
Gladstone 0 8 8 0 - 16
Escanaba 0 21 14 6 - 41
E - Cam Beversluis, 12-yard rush, Myrick kick, 5:55
G - Justin Jurek, 5-yard rush, 2pt run, 2:22
E - Corey McInerney, 16-yard reception from Travis Heller, Myrick kick, 1:27
E - Beversluis, 20-yard reception from Heller, Myrick kick, 0:07
E - TJ Myrick, 13-yard reception from Heller, Myrick kick, 6:27
G - Jared Hunter, 1-yard rush, 2pt run, 4:00
E - Trevan Wendrick, 27-yard rush, Myrick kick, 3:07
E - McInerney, 75-yard rush, kick failed, 3:07
Gladstone - 196 (123 rushing, 73 passing)
Escanaba - 457 (347 rushing, 110 passing)
Gladstone - Sam Pouliot (1-3-13-0-0); Jared Hunter (4-9-73-0-0)
Escanaba - Travis Heller (8-14-110-3-0)
Gladstone - Jared Hunter (3-6); Justin Jurek (15-(-4)); Tyler Wells (17-119); Jake Cronick (3-8); Sam Pouliot (2-(-8);
Escanaba - Cam Beversluis (9-53); Travis Heller (12-58); Trevan Wendrick (9-88); Jake Walker (3-10); Sean Bissell (6-32); Corey McInerney (8-104).