HANCOCK - On paper, it looks like one of the most meaningful Copper Bowl games in recent history.
On Houghton's practice field, it's an exercise in perspective. On Hancock's practice field, it's a chance to trip its rival at the final hurdle.
At 5-3, coach Karl Borree is being very careful with his Gremlins, keeping the focus on playing 48 solid minutes tonight at McAfee Field, not on what they may earn after those minutes have elapsed.
Hancock’s Tanner Kearly releases a pass during the Bulldogs’ Week 1 game at the Gogebic Miners in Wakefield. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
Houghton quarterback Ben Collaer throws in the face of L’Anse pressure. The Bulldogs host the Gremlins in the 61st Copper Bowl tonight at McAfee Field. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
"We can only control what we can control. We can only focus on what we do, and our goal is to be more fundamentally sound each time we take the field," he said.
Neither side needs a reminder of what's at stake tonight in the 61st edition - for the first time since the Michigan High School Athletic Association adopted the six-wins-and-you're in playoff format in 1999, Houghton needs to win the Copper Bowl for a sixth victory.
Hancock, at 3-5, can't make the postseason. But the Bulldogs can take the Gremlins into the offseason with them, just like the Gremlins did when they won at Condon Field in 2003 to deny Hancock an automatic berth in the highest-scoring Copper Bowl of all time.
"We talked about it before even Houghton played Baraga (in Week 8)," Hancock coach Matt Walter said. "After they beat Lake Linden (in Week 7), we said they're going to come in 5-3 and they're going to be looking for the playoffs and we've got to stop them."
Walter noted that the Bulldogs may have been as few as two two-point conversions from being in the same position.
In their opener at the Gogebic Miners, a missed extra point sent the game into overtime, where Gogebic won on a two-point conversion. In Week 4, Hancock drove the length of the field to get within one point in the final minute against L'Anse, but was stopped short on the two-point conversion.
"We're 3-5 right now, but this group is definitely not 3-5 and they know it and they'll be ready to play Friday," Walter said.
Houghton, a 29-14 winner at home in last year's game, has rode that to its most successful season in over a decade.
As part of that, the Gremlins have gotten some breaks. In Week 2 vs. Westwood, they survived a lost fumble in overtime, getting a stop and winning it in double-OT. In Week 7, Houghton won another double-OT game, at Lake Linden-Hubbell, when the Lakes could have won it in the first OT with a two-point conversion. Those are some of the reasons Borree is quick to apply a cold press to any outbreaks of playoff fever.
"We were lucky to get a couple wins when we were up against it. Things turned out a little better as far as win-loss record as we thought, maybe," he said.
Another reason is just how young Houghton's team is. At the beginning of the year, the Gremlins had just one senior (Zach Verran) with varsity playing experience. Three other seniors came out for football this year.
"All that stems from the top, the leadership Verran has shown as a senior to setting the team and leading the team under duress," Borree said.
Another big dose of leadership has come from quarterback Ben Collaer. The junior may have had his breakout game in last year's Copper Bowl, running for two touchdowns and throwing for a third.
Collaer has run for 730 yards on 178 carries, and has thrown for nearly 1,000 yards, accounting for 15 touchdowns either via the ground or the air.
"Any time you play Houghton right now, you've got to stop Ben Collaer. A great back, a better kid," Walter said.
Walter expressed concern about his team's surrendering big plays, particularly on the outside, where lack of size and experience have created problems in the defensive backfield.
Creating big plays of their own has also been an issue for the Bulldogs.
"We're one block away, whether it's our receivers blocking, our tight ends, our line, we all have to be blocking and staying on our blocks," Walter said.
However, the Bulldogs have weapons, starting with senior quarterback Tanner Kearly.
"He's really getting the guys fired up this week and that's what we lacked the first couple weeks of the season," Walter said.
Where Houghton is much less experienced, Walter can count on several seniors to be major players tonight, including backs William Lucier and Brandon Barnes and interior players Jordy LaTendresse, Adrian Saterstad and Sean Patchin.
"It's been a great week of practice. The physicality's been there, the mental focus has been there," Walter said.
If, for the first time since 2001, there's a 10th game waiting for the Gremlins after the final horn Friday, Borree's team will have earned it.
"They're a very tough matchup for us. They're very big up front and they're very physical," he said.
"They're getting better every game and we're on their home field. We have a very, very hard matchup against this team."