BY DENNIS CHASE
CADILLAC — Tom Passinault wanted an exclamation point win to end the regular season Friday night.
The Traverse City Central football coach got it.
The Trojans took command in the second half for a 42-21 win at Cadillac, capping an unbeaten 6-0 Big North Conference season.
The game was tied 21-21 at half after Cadillac's Patrick Briggs returned a punt nearly 80 yards for a touchdown with just 11.9 seconds remaining.
"We're ecstatic to be undefeated in the conference," Passinault said. "To win eight games is a tremendous accomplishment.
"We had a heartbreaking loss at Grand Haven to open the season, but the boys kept saying we're going to win eight and they did it."
The win could give Central a home Division 2 playoff game next weekend at Thirlby Field. It's possible the 8-1 Trojans could host Bay City Western, although the official MHSAA announcement will be made Sunday evening.
"We had to get this win to even have a chance to get a home game," linebacker-fullback Nate Pupel said. "That's one of the things we were playing for tonight."
Pupel scored two touchdowns for the Trojans on a pair of one-yard runs.
But it was quarterback T.J. Schepperly who stole the show. Schepperly rushed for 213 yards with two touchdowns and passed for 101 yards and another score.
"He's a terrific runner," Passinault said. "He breaks tackles and he has tremendous speed."
Schepperly's touchdown runs covered 65 and 80 yards. His 80-yard jaunt gave Central the lead for good at 28-21 midway through the third quarter.
His touchdown pass, a 22-yarder to T.J. Schwannecke, came on the Trojans opening drive.
Central never trailed, although the Vikings (6-3, 3-3 BNC) matched touchdowns with the Trojans in the first half. The punt return by Briggs temporarily stunned the Trojans.
"We've had so many games go our way I don't think the boys knew how to react," Passinault said. "We brought them together before we went into the locker room and just told them to relax, that this is what playoff football is like. This is what we'll be in for next week.
"I'm really proud of our defense. We shut them out in the second half. And offensively we controlled the clock, which is something we have not been able to do in past years."
Schepperly called the second half gut-check time for the Trojans.
"This was a battling back moment for us and we responded," he said.
After Schepperly's 80-yard scamper put the Trojans ahead by seven, sophomore Joe Schepperly got in on the act, rambling 35 yards for a score on the next possession. Suddenly, it was two-touchdown game and it forced Cadillac to the air.
The Trojans capitalized when Vikings quarterback Jalen Brooks under threw a receiver and Vinnie Zakrajsek intercepted the first play of the fourth quarter.
Central then ran seven minutes off the clock on a 59-yard drive that ended with a Pupel touchdown.
That was the game.
"It was just like our Ogemaw game where we went into the fourth quarter tied (21-21)," tackle Tyler Gildersleeve said. "We definitely responded in that game just like we did here. And that's what we were talking about in the locker room at half. That we knew how to respond. We're a second-half team."
And an 8-1 team, too.
"Everybody from the beginning believed we could do it," Schepperly said.
The seniors on this team went 8-1 as sophomores on JV. And they did it the same way, losing the opener and then rattling off eight in a row.
"That first game loss (at Grand Haven), you can take the right way or the wrong way and I think we took it the right way because we didn't want to lose again," Pupel said. "We didn't want that feeling again."
Brooks had a big game for the Vikings. He had 144 yards on the ground in the first half alone, scoring on runs of 69 and five yards.