Houghton, Hancock prepare for clash of styles in 64th Copper Bowl

Houghton’s Jake Rajala fights for extra yardage against Gogebic on Sept. 8 in Bessemer. Rajala leads Houghton’s power running game. (Pat Krause/Daily Globe)

HANCOCK — When Ted Holmstrom was named the Hancock head football coach in the summer of 2016, the Hancock administration made it clear the program’s top priority was to re-establish dominance in its rivalry with the Houghton Gremlins — winners of the previous four Copper Bowls.

Holmstrom eventually restored bragging rights to the Crimson and Gold in the 63rd Copper Bowl (20-18) last year. Now, Holmstrom and Hancock (6-2) seek the longstanding success that has followed Hancock in the all-time rivalry that dates back to 1901. The Bulldogs hold an 86-51-9 series lead in the most-played game in the state of Michigan. The two rivals will meet for the 147th time Friday at 7 p.m. at McAfee Field.

“This is the No. 1 game of the entire year,” Holmstrom said. “Bigger than any conference championship game and bigger than any playoff game that we’ll have next week.

“We’ll have practice Saturday morning for the playoffs, but whether we win or lose Friday night, part of the discussion will be what we have to do to beat Houghton next year.”

On the other sideline, Houghton first-year head coach Frank Bonacorsi and his Gremlins (1-8) squad have no postseason matchup to look forward to next week. This is it. This is Houghton’s Super Bowl.

“It would be good to end with a victory,” Bonacorsi said, “but our goal was to make the playoffs and have success there. We’ve been battling. In terms of moral victories, it’s been good, but it’s not what we set out to do… We have some motivation going into the offseason with what we want to accomplish.”

Here’s what to look for when each team has the ball:

When Hancock has the ball… you should get off your phone or you might miss a play. The Bulldogs’ no-huddle offense routinely gets a play off as soon as the umpire gets done placing the football down after the previous play. Hancock’s uptempo approach has allowed them to wear down opposing teams, thanks to the Bulldogs starting a separate offensive and defensive unit. In total, it’s normal for Hancock to play as many as 26 players. That’s a stark contrast to the Gremlins, who have played with as few as 13 active players while mostly hovering in the 14-16 range.

“We believe the more plays we can get in, the better it is for everyone on our side of the ball,” Holmstrom said. “That’s a big-time strategy for us to wear them right down.”

The Bulldogs utilize an inside-out running attack with senior fullback Aaron Barnes powering through the middle on dives, and junior Alex Nordstrom attacking off the edges. Sophomore quarterback Colton Salani is another dangerous runner in the open field who has shown the ability to take the top off of defenses with vertical pass plays to senior Grant Hokenson. Quick screens and swing passes are also common in the Bulldogs’ offense.

Bonacorsi has been preparing for Hancock’s offense by using Houghton alums Jordan Reynolds and Quentin Stachowiak on the scout team this week.

“With the limited number of players, it’s hard to replicate what they’re going to do,” Bonacorsi said. “Got a couple good athletes from the year before who have been with me all year, and we’re going to try the best we can to get the defense to work out of a no-huddle themselves and be ready so they don’t get caught off guard.”

When Houghton has the ball… it’s easy to see how Bonacorsi’s coaching style was influenced from his time as a player at Calumet and as an assistant coach at Forest Park. The Gremlins are an old-fashioned power running team that looks to outmuscle its opponents between the tackles behind the downhill running style of senior Jake Rajala.

Houghton’s run game has flourished in the last three weeks, with Rajala gaining 176 yards against Northland Pines, 112 versus Lake Linden-Hubbell and 143 against Hurley.

“L”Anse ran a power game (against Hancock) and won (20-18),” Bonacorsi said. “Lake Linden had a power game that went into overtime with them. Calumet somewhat did, but other teams have had success. The power game is something that if there’s any sort of hope for us, it’s that.

“It’s no secret what we do. We run behind Jake, so hopefully, we can take care of the ball and execute. That will be the biggest thing for us.”

Hancock is coming off a 30-13 loss to the West Iron County Wykons where the Bulldogs surrendered 274 yards on the ground. The Lake Linden-Hubbell Lakes (249), Hurley Midgets (274) and L’Anse Purple Hornets (333) have all had success with their power running games against Hancock, all while employing a ball-control offense in an effort to keep Hancock’s offensive playmakers off the field.

“If you want to be successful on defense, all 11 players have to do their assignments on a consistent basis,” Holmstrom said. “Everyone has to have their gap, control their gap, understand where help is coming from and do the things that will take away what Houghton does best.

“The three most important words are consistency, consistency and consistency. That’s what we’re looking for. No one can take a break or take a play off.”

What to look for on special teams… Hancock utilizes the kicking talents of former soccer player Brendan LeClaire to kick an extra point after a touchdown. LeClaire is also a dangerous returner on kicks and punts.

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