By Ben Murphy
For much of the first half visiting Houghton Lake looked like the better football team Friday night. However, for the entire second half Clare was emphatically the better team, racking up 23 unanswered second half points to win 40-15.
“The first half wasn’t anything that we were real proud of,” Clare head coach Kelly Luplow said of the Jack Pine Conference football contest. “We struggled a bit early but in the second half we became more consistent at how we were doing on both sides of the ball. We got a little more focused and a little more physical and finished strong.”
The Bobcats entered the game having lost 14-of-their last 15 games, but nonetheless struck first with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Jared Dull to Tyler Sluck to go up 7-0 over the JPC powerhouse Pioneers.
Clare had its ensuing drive stall deep in Houghton Lake’s territory, but Camden Dice made good on his first career field-goal attempt, successfully converting a 22-yarder to make it 7-3.
After stopping the Bobcats on their next offensive possession, Clare’s Jordan Gross gave his team the lead with a three-yard score and a Dice extra point made it 10-7 with 1:28 to play in the first.
In the second quarter, Charlie Bugbee hauled in an interception to give Clare possession again, with Gross running in for his second score of the night on the ensuing offensive drive, this time from 18-yards away. Dice’s second extra point made it 17-7.
Clare was knocking on the door of the end-zone later in the second, the Pioneers fumbled the ball away just five yards away from another score.
The Bobcats cashed in on the turnover, driving 95 yards for their second touchdown of the night, with Nathaniel Hudson running in from two-yards out. H-L also completed the two-point conversion to make it 17-15 at the half.
“People don’t get this but everybody plays extremely hard against us,” Luplow said. “We’ve been on top for a lot of years and we know we have that target on our back in our conference and that’s the way it should be, but we aren’t responding to that very well early in games. We just don’t come out of the gate very strong.”
Gross got Clare rolling in the third quarter, running in from three-yards out to put the Pioneers up 24-15.
Houghton Lake couldn’t get anything going on its next drive and had its ensuing punt blocked, resulting in a safety for a 26-15 Pioneer lead.
“The second half our kids played harder and stepped up and played the way we wanted them to play and that was nice to see,” Luplow said. “They could have laid down but the came out and came right down the field and scored and put some points up on the board to put the game away.”
On the ensuing possession, Clare quarterback Colton Punches ran in from 17-yards out on a keeper to make it 33-15 and Gross scored for the fourth time from 21-yards out in the fourth quarter.
“He had 177 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries,” Luplow said of Gross. “I’d say that’s a pretty impressive night.”
The coach was also impressed by his sophomore kicker Dice, who’s primary sport soccer has conflicted with the football to the point that Friday’s game was his season debut.
“He was definitely a bright spot,” Luplow said. “He was very impressive, never missed an extra point, made a field-goal and kicked the ball inside the five-yard line on kickoffs. When you have a kicker like that, it’s huge. We’re real pleased with him that’s for sure.”
All this helped the Pioneers overcome five turnovers on the night, something the coach was less than thrilled with.
“How you win games with five turnovers is beyond me,” Luplow said. “I don’t know how we won that game with that many turnovers but we did. We have to cut that down if we’re going to compete with other teams in our league.”
Aside from Gross, Clare was led offensively by Punches who was eight-of-14 passing for 132 yards, with Punches also running nine times for 41 yards and one touchdown. Logan Emery ran five times for 25 yards and Joe Huston had three catches for 69 yards.
Joe McGuire led the defense with 14 tackles, Lee Cole and Emery both had nine, Kyler Zinser had eight, with Punches and Colton Gillespie both taking down seven.
Clare (2-2 overall, 2-0 JPC) hosts Gladwin (3-1, 2-0) tonight (Friday) for Homecoming. The Flying G’s are coming off a 48-14 win over Beaverton. Clare has won every meeting between the two teams since Gladwin joined the JPC in 2002, though Gladwin did top Clare in 1981, 34-9. Despite the recent success against the G’s, Luplow isn’t quite sure what to expect tonight.
“I think both teams are really excited about this game,” Luplow said. “Obviously we’re excited because it’s our homecoming game and that means the environment should be a little more electric than a regular home game. The interesting thing about this game is their three wins are a against teams that are a combined 0-12 and our two twins are against teams that are a combined 0-8. Neither one of us has beat a team that has won a game so this is really going to show a lot.
“We don’t know how good they are and they don’t know how good we are,” Luplow added. “We’ll see what happens, it’s going to be pretty interesting. I know that they have a lot of speed in their skill positions. They can fly on the outside so them on our turn is scary. We’ll have to try and slow them down a little bit.”