ANN ARBOR — It wasn’t pretty, especially the second half, but the Brighton football team served notice it’s becoming a program to be reckoned with in the state of Michigan.
Exhibit 1 was Thursday’s 14-8 victory over Detroit East English Village Prep, a team that has lost to the eventual Division 2 champion the last two years and has made the playoffs in each of its four seasons.
They did it the old-fashioned way, grinding out a victory with two touchdowns in the first half, then using a bend-but-don’t-break defense that made key stops in the second half.
“At big times, big players make plays,” Brighton coach Brian Lemons said. “At the end there, that’s what happend. Our seniors in that secondary really stood up at the end.”
The key was equal parts determination and an endless supply of substitutes in the second half, in which Brighton had five drives, not counting a kneel-down at the end. None of them went more than six plays and the Bulldogs gained only 61 yards.
“I thought I saw some running backs on the defensive line,” Lemons said. “Everyone was playing there by the end of it. It was pass rush, pass rush, pass rush. It was great.”
“They were bigger, and their size started to wear on us a bit,” Brighton’s Alex Palazzolo said. “But we had our rotation, and they were playing both ways. We could see they were just as tired as we were. So, basically, it was all mental, and we were able to tough it out.”
But not without a little nervousness.
East English, also known as the Bulldogs, moved the ball in the second half after switching to the pass. Quarterback Delvin Washington threw for 176 yards on 16-for-40 passing, and the onslaught finally paid off when he found Malik Brown for a 28-yard touchdown with 2:00 remaining.
After a four-and-out by Brighton deep in its own territory, East English got the ball again at the Brighton 36. Washington found Denzel Armstrong for a 25-yard gain to the Brighton 11, but Washington couldn’t find a receiver and the Bulldogs finally got the ball back with three seconds left.
“They did such a great job of making plays when they needed to,” Lemons said. “They left a couple plays out there. They dropped a couple passes. But our game plan was to make them drive the whole field and make the plays before we do, and I think we made the plays we needed to.”
In the first half, Brighton moved the ball up and down the field, scoring first on Cameron Tullar’s 21-yard scoring pass to Rudy Ramirez midway through the first period, then again on a Tullar pass to Braydon Ebbeskotte in the final seconds of the first half.
East English tried to establish a ground attack with Zhamaine March, but the Bulldogs mostly kept him in check in the first half.
“Defensively, they lined up in something we hadn’t seen on film,” East English coach Rod Oden said. “We just didn’t take advantage of what was given to us.
“Hats off to their game plan,” he added. “We made the adjustments (in the second half), but we have to hit open guys. We were a tad bit off, and you get that in the first game sometimes.”
The Bulldogs mixed the run and the pass well in the first half, gaining 201 yards to East English’s 44, but East English reversed that in the second half, outgaining Brighton 267-64.
Luke Helwing, who rushed for 61 yards and had 19 yards in receptions while also seeing plenty of time at linebacker, saw the win as a springboard for his team.
“It sets the year up for a great year,” he said. “Everyone’s going to look back on this first game and think, Wow. We beat them. We can beat anybody. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
“We were mentally tougher,” Palazzolo said. “They were definitely the favorite and we were the underdogs, but we said, hey, we have to win this. We have to prove we’re the Brighton Bulldogs. We have to prove we’re the better Bulldogs.”
By dinnertime on a warm Thursday afternoon, Brighton had proven just that.