By MIKE ECKERT
TRAVERSE CITY —
Saginaw Nouvel beat St. Francis twice a year ago en route to a perfect season and a Division 7 state championship.
On Friday, the Gladiators got one back.
Behind a strong defensive attack, St. Francis came away with a 13-7 victory over the top-ranked Panthers at Thirlby Field in the fifth-annual Breast Cancer Bowl.
"We felt very comfortable going into the game in what we had to do," senior linebacker Noah LaLonde said. "We knew our assignments very well. I give all the credit in the world to coach (Joe) Forlenza. He's an amazing coach and knows his defense. We just executed well."
The Gladiators stay in the playoff race at 4-3. Next week they'll travel to Glen Lake. Nouvel, which played on the road for the first time this year, drops to 4-2.
"We've still got a lot to get better at," St. Francis coach Greg Vaughan said. "Offensively, we've still got to complete drives. But I think our kids are believing. Last week was a good week, as far as team effort goes. They started believing in win one play at a time. They certainly did that tonight.
"Defense played great. They were aggressive. Holding a big-play offense to the points they did was huge. They gave the offense great cues."
The big play came with just over 3 minutes left in the game when St. Francis junior linebacker Adam Armour broke a 7-7 tie with a 46-yard interception return for a touchdown and a 13-7 lead.
"That was one of the best things that's happened to me so far," Armour said. "I was reading the quarterback's eyes. As a middle linebacker, that's what you've got to do. I dropped a little, read his eyes and saw it go. I was trying to get to the end-zone. I didn't know whether to stutter, to cut, to stiff-arm, I just wanted to get to the end zone."
The interception was one of four turnovers for the Panthers, who also had 10 penalties for 90 yards.
"I'm not sure we can make more mistakes in a football game," Nouvel coach Mike Boyd said. "We did the same thing against (Flint) Powers. Turnovers and turnovers early. It's something that's been hurting us this year that we don't come out and seem to get it done early in the big games."
On the first offensive play of the game, Nouvel had a bad snap and Malcom LaLonde recovered it for an early momentum boost.
St. Francis got on the board late in the first half after a 15-play drive ended with an Armour run at the goal-line with 39.5 seconds left for a 7-0 lead. It came a couple of plays after Byron Bullough ran a fake field goal 14 yards on fourth-and-8 to the goal-line. The Glads took the 7-0 lead into halftime.
"In the semifinals last year, we had the lead 3-0 (over Nouvel)," Armour said. "We just had to focus on what we were going to do. We had to go out and keep pounding. We pounded and pounded in the first half, and got that touchdown, which was a big game-changer. We kept it going in the second half."
"You're dealing with teenagers," Vaughan said. "They believe whole-heartedly, but they need to visually see it sometimes. Coming in (to halftime) with a sense of 'what we're doing is working and we're ahead' is a big part of it. But we still need to finish. Coming out in the second half and letting them have a big score like they had, you can't play that game and always expect to come out on top."
Nouvel forced St. Francis into a three-and-out to start the second half and quickly scored on a 41-yard pass from Garrett Graham to Ryan Sullivan to tie the game.
The Gladiators, though, would control the game the rest of the way, including a 19-play drive that consumed 9 minutes of game clock.
"We talked about it going into the game, that our offense had to act like a defense and control the clock," Vaughan said. "Obviously we'd like to get some points on the board. Scoring on a fake field goal and an interception was awesome, but offensively we've got to get the ball into the end zone. But using the offense as a defense, we were okay with that this week."
Bullough finished with 19 carries for 63 yards while Armour ran 15 times for 32 yards. Fullback Jake Khoury had nine rushes for 24 yards, including a couple of key runs to pick up first downs.
Armour finished with nine tackles and the interception while Malcom LaLonde and Eric Coggon each had 4.5 tackles.
Sullivan was held to 16 carries for 61 yards while Graham was 7-for-12 passing for 111 yards.
St. Francis can still guarantee a playoff berth with two more wins. However, the road doesn't get any easier with a trip to undefeated Glen Lake next week and 5-2 Muskegon Catholic to close out the year.