Swan Valley tailback Alex Grace runs through an opening behind a block by teammate Ben Finzel, left, as Freeland linebacker Jake Jankoska, right, defends during their football game at Swan Valley High School in Thomas Township, Sept. 13, 2013. (Jeff Schrier | The Saginaw News)
For one quarter of Friday’s Tri-Valley Central showdown with host Swan Valley, Freeland had everything going its way.
Falcons quarterback Jarett Riffel was 4 of 4 passing for 65 yards on the first drive and gave Freeland a 7-0 lead on a 5-yard touchdown run. After the Falcons stuffed Swan Valley all-state running back Alex Grace on fourth and one, they needed just four plays to cover 55 yards, scoring on Jake Jankoska’s 1-yard touchdown run for a 13-0 lead after one quarter.
“That’s the first time since I’ve coached here that we’ve led by two possessions against Swan Valley. It’s usually the other way around,” Freeland coach Kevin Townsend said. “And we even stopped Grace on a fourth and one. That doesn’t happen.”
And it didn’t happen much after that. Grace, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound junior, slashed and gashed Freeland’s defense all night. After just 15 yards on seven carries in the first quarter, Grace finished with 337 yards on 38 carries and led Swan Valley to the 29-19 victory. The Vikings (3-0, 2-0 TVC Central), ranked No. 1 in Division 4 in The Associated Press prep poll, snapped a two-game losing streak to Freeland (2-1, 1-1).
Grace scored four touchdowns in the win and finished with a career-best 337 rushing yards after running for 151 yards at halftime. The Vikings failed to complete a pass in the game.
“We’ve done about all we can do against him,” Townsend said. “Good luck to anyone who can slow him down. He falls forward on every run. He’s fast, he’s strong and they have strength in that offensive line.
“They beat us up front.”
The Falcons maintained the momentum into the second quarter, stopping the Vikings on downs inside Freeland’s 30-yard line midway through the second quarter. But Freeland fumbled the ball back on its next snap and Grace needed just three plays to score on a 4-yard touchdown run. Ben Finzel’s first of three extra point kicks narrowed Freeland’s advantage to 13-7.
After a Freeland three-and-out, Swan Valley looked to take a 14-13 lead into halftime when Grace scored on a 3-yard touchdown run with 45 seconds left in the first half. But it was Freeland posting a 19-14 lead at halftime as Riffel found Jankoska for a 30-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds left in the second quarter. Jankoska set up the play with a 50-yard kick return.
“We knew Freeland would throw and we know we have to work on our pass defense,” Swan Valley coach Ken Bourbina said. “I think we got a couple key stops in the second half that swung the momentum our way.”
Freeland got the first stop of the second half when Josh Schlak intercepted a Nick Call pass, giving Freeland the ball at its own 40-yard line. The Falcons ate nearly seven minutes off the clock on the drive but it ended on a long fourth down pass that was picked off by Swan Valley’s Hunter Wunderle.
Finzel, a fullback who set up many key blocks for Grace, had a key 29-yard run on the next drive that led the way for Grace’s 1-yard touchdown run and Call’s two-point pass to Brock Notter to put the Vikings ahead 22-19 with 1:48 left in the third quarter.
After both teams exchanged punts, Freeland drove to the Swan Valley 17-yard line with 7:25 left in the game but turned the ball over on downs after Riffel’s pass into the end zone fell incomplete.
That’s when Grace finished off the Falcons, slicing a run up the middle, bouncing and spinning off a pair of Freeland defensive backs and racing 56 yards for a touchdown and a 29-19 Swan Valley lead with 5:44 left in the game. Grace finished with 130 yards on seven carries in the fourth quarter.
“It all starts up front,” said Grace, whose previous career best was 303 yards. “The offensive line did an excellent job of making holes. When I got a little tired in the end and I was breathing heavy, I just kept thinking this could be my last play and to just keep running hard.
“We keep motivating ourselves to do better.”
Swan Valley finished with 404 rushing yards as a team as Call finished with 39 rushing yards and Finzel 32 rushing yards.
Riffel finished 9 of 19 passing for 149 yards, a touchdown and one interception. Jankoska caught five passes for 115 yards and ran 10 times for 30 yards. Freeland ran for 109 yards as a team and was led by Drew Mojica’s 49 yards.
“This is pretty amazing because we have big wins over Nouvel and Freeland,” Grace said. “(We are playing like a No. 1 ranked team) but we’re not letting that ranking get to our heads. We had a 13-0 deficit tonight and we used that as our motivation.”