HOUGHTON - Under a new coach for the fourth time in five years, the Houghton football team made notable progress Friday night.
Now they have to combine that progress with increased focus and consistency.
The Gremlins fell 27-15 at home to WestPAC opponent Ironwood, a stark improvement from the 34-0 (L'Anse) and 36-0 (Westwood) defeats in the first two games of the season.
Houghton's Ian Helman hits Ironwood's Cole Stevens on a second-quarter play during Friday's game at Alumni Field in Houghton. The Red Devils came away with a 27-15 victory. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
Houghton put together a 12-play drive in the third quarter, culminating with sophomore running back Ben Collaer's 2-yard touchdown plunge, to tie the game up at 15-all before Ironwood quarterback Adam Mackey struck twice on the ground in the fourth period to give the Red Devils the lead for good.
"We were inconsistent in all phases of the game," Houghton coach Karl Borree said. "That is really the sign of a program that is in its infancy, is inconsistency. At times we threw the ball and caught the ball well. At other times we didn't catch the ball that was thrown to us. At times we blocked well. At times we didn't. We just need to focus on getting better in all phases."
Three lost fumbles - including two in the final 10 minutes of the game - and two 15-yard personal fouls proved too much for the Gremlins to overcome in the mistakes department.
Ironwood 7 8 0 12 - 27
Houghton 7 0 8 0 - 15
IRON -Cole Stevens 1-yard run (Stevens kick)
HOU - Seth Kaarto 92-yard kick return (Ryan LaBerge kick)
IRON - Adam Mackey 3-yard run (Stevens run)
HOU - Ben Collaer 2-yard run (Collaer run)
IRON - Mackey 2-yard run (run fail)
IRON - Mackey 5-yard run (pass fail)
Total offense - Ironwood 223 yards (201 rush, 22 pass); Houghton 167 yards (152 rush, 15 pass). First downs - Ironwood 14; Houghton 6. Passing - Ironwood, Mackey, 3-22-0; Houghton, LaBerge 1-15-0. Rushing - Ironwood, Mackey 18-96-3; Houghton, Collaer 14-98-1.
A late hit penalty on third down in the second quarter gave Ironwood the boost they needed to take a lead into haltime - on a three-yard run from Mackey - with under a minute left in the half. A face mask flag in the fourth quarter helped the Red Devils take the lead for good.
"At the beginning of the season we told them, 'High school football teams are going to make mistakes. We need to minimize ours and capitalize on theirs,'" Ironwood coach Dan Niemi said. "They are going to make mistakes and it needs to be used to our advantage. We did well today."
Trying to mount a comeback in the fourth quarter, Houghton lost two fumbles, including one where the ball carrier ran into his own blocker.
"(Building) fundamentals takes time," Borree said. "And that is what we need right now. Fumbling, tackling, the fundamentals. At times, we obviously fumbled the ball and at times we didn't tackle well. That is the sign of a program that needs to get better.
"We can't get to high and we can't get too low," Borree added. "We will watch the film and there will be good things and bad."
After the first fourth-quarter fumble recovery, Ironwood drove to the end zone in eight plays that killed over five minutes of game clock. Mackey scored the game-winner from 2-yards out, accounting for 29 yards on four carries.
"The fourth quarter has been a little bit of a weak spot and we really picked it up today," Niemi said. "We have been fighting that a bit since the program started four years ago and the fourth quarter has traditionally been a bit of a weak spot. But we are starting to rectify that."
Mackey proved too much for Houghton to handle in the final quarter, as the 6-3, 180 pound junior quarterback rumbled for 55 fourth-quarter yards.
"He reads the defense, we give him free rein to audible, its really like having another coach there," Niemi said. "He has started as a freshman for us and he has been running the option ever since. We are lucky that he has gotten bigger, because he is able to move the pile and he is able to take a hit and still maintain."
Houghton had some positives to hang their helmet on, however. Seth Kaarto scored the first touchdown of the season for Houghton on a 92-yard kick return and Collaer acted as a pile mover in his own right for Houghton, with the 196-pound sophomore running back compiling 98 yards on 14 carries with the Gremlins' lone offensive touchdown. He certainly impressed Niemi.
"He is a good size kid for a sophomore, wow," Niemi said. "He came through and he carried some guys out of the backfield. He is going to be a load for Houghton coming up. He is a nice back."
Houghton (0-3, 0-2 WestPAC) is home next Friday to host Calumet.