Plymouth's football team may have shocked the high school football world Friday night, but the Wildcats didn't shock themselves.
One month after suffering a demoralizing 36-0 setback to Canton, the Wildcats posted a 17-7 victory over the Chiefs on a blustery cold night at the P-CEP varsity stadium.
"I felt this coming all week," said Plymouth two-way star Donte Fox, whose 51-yard fumble return with 1:56 left in the first half doubled Plymouth's lead to 14-0. "We had a great week of practice. We were aggressive all week.
"The key was the game plan our coaches put together. They worked their butts off getting us ready for tonight."
Plymouth (9-2) advances to play the winner of Saturday's Novi Detroit Catholic Central-Northville game.
If CC wins, next weekend's regional final will be played on the Shamrocks' home field, likely on Saturday at 1 p.m.
"The bottom line is when you get beat 36-0 by a team a few weeks earlier, you'd better come together and get tougher or you're going to get embarrassed again," said Plymouth head coach Mike Sawchuk. "It was put up or shut up time tonight for us, and the guys got the job done."
Canton (10-1), which entered the game ranked No. 1 in the state, lost two fumbles and was intercepted once.
"Turnovers and penalties absolutely killed us," said Canton coach Tim Baechler. "We played bad and they played extremely well."
After holding Canton to a three-and-out, Plymouth scored on its opening drive, an 11-play tone-setter that culminated in a 6-yard Shaun Austin-to-Nate Emminger TD pass.
Austin scrambled in the pocket to buy time before lofting a pass in the right corner of the end zone to the 5-foot-6 sparkplug who was playing on the Wildcats' junior varsity team the last time Plymouth met Canton.
"That kid's a football player," Sawchuk said of Emminger, who picked off a pass and led the Wildcats with six tackles. "He loves to play the game. He has great hands and he's tough.
"We would have brought him up (to the varsity) earlier, but we already had some skill kids who we thought would do the job. After the Canton loss, we brought him up to see what he could do and he has done great."
The Chiefs -- who rarely punt twice in a month, let alone two times in a quarter -- were forced to boot the ball away on their next possession after a receiver streaking down the middle of the field on a second-and-9 play from the Canton 39 failed to haul in a perfectly-thrown Ben Merbler aerial.
The pivotal play of the game unfolded with just under two minutes to play in the half. A solid tackle by Brennen Beyer separated Merbler from the ball, which was scooped up by Fox on the run at the Canton 49.
Aided by a convoy of teammates, the junior speedster raced into the end zone to stake the 'Cats to a 14-0 lead.
"I saw Brennen hit their quarterback, then the ball popped right up to me," said Fox. "I picked it up and ran."
The Chiefs took some momentum into the halftime break thanks to Merbler's 27-yard TD pass to a wide-open Kevin Buford on a fourth-down play with 29 seconds left in the half.
After both teams exchanged three-and-outs to open the third quarter, Plymouth mounted what turned out to be the game's final scoring drive mid-way through the period, extending its lead to 17-7 on Kyle Brindza's 45-yard, into-the-wind field goal.
The key play on the seven-play possession was Jerel Jenkins' 33-yard scamper on third-and-2 that took the ball from the Plymouth 35 to the Canton 32.
Canton pieced together a sturdy drive on its next possession, moving to the Wildcat 42 where it faced a critical fourth-and-6. Merbler hit Bryden with a shot pass near the sideline, but Bryden was dragged down by Phil Schultz one yard shy of the first-down marker.
Although the Wildcats didn't score on their next drive, they took close to five minutes off the clock, pushing the ball from their 36 to Canton's 26 before Brindza's 43-yard field goal was blocked by Ryan Powell.
The key play on the drive was a 32-yard Austin-to-Jake-Morris completion on a third-and-12 play.
"That play was huge because it allowed us to take a lot more time off the clock," Sawchuk said.
The Chiefs moved efficiently down the field on their next possession, earning a first down at the Plymouth 14. However, a pair of penalties pushed the ball back and with 5:58 left, Emminger picked off a Merbler pass in the end zone to all but seal the biggest victory in the history of Wildcat football.
"I couldn't even have imagined how great this feels," said Phil Emminger, a three-year starter on the Wildcats' defense and the older brother of Nate.
"I love that kid," Phil Emminger said of his younger brother. "I'm so happy we're able to be out there playing together."
Plymouth played the game without star linebacker Tony Rhodes, who suffered an injury during a practice this past week.
"We won this for Tony," Phil Emminger said. "It was tough not having him out there tonight, but our motto all week was, 'The next guy has to step up.'"
Sawchuk said Schultz, Faris Abraham and sophomore Stefan Turrentine did an outstanding job of filling the void left by Rhodes' injury.
Canton outgained Plymouth in total yards, 261-182. Jenkins rushed 20 times for 65 yards. Austin completed 13 of 22 passes for 99 yards.
Morris hauled in five receptions for 58 yards.
Beyer, who was a ball-seeking missile on defense, grabbed three passes for 34 yards. His first catch was a leaping beauty that set up the Wildcats' first TD.
Buford racked up 89 yards on 12 carries, but he wasn't able to break a big play against the swarming Plymouth defense.
Canton's Zac Merillat gained 45 yards on 12 carries while Davion Stackhouse was held to 36 yards on five attempts.
Merbler completed 6 of 16 passes for 80 yards.
Braden Price was a tackling machine for Canton's defense. The senior had 18 stops, 15 of which were solos.
Ben Poirier also closed his high school football career with a stellar effort, making 12 tackles.
Ed Wright can be reached at (734) 453-1980 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donte Fox returned this fumble recovery 51 yards for a touchdown. (photo courtesy of PlymouthPictures.com)
Nate Emminger (23) and Faris Abraham put the wraps on Kevin Buford. (Ed Wright photo)
Canton's Braden Price and Ben Poirier stop Jerel Jenkins after a short game. (Ed Wright photo)
Nate Emminger hauled in a 6-yard TD pass from Shaun Austin for the game's first score. (photo courtesy of PlymouthPictures.com)
Nate Emminger (23) and Brennen Beyer celebrate Emminger's TD reception. (Ed Wright photo)
This fourth-quarter pass in the end zone barely eluded Kevin Buford's grasp. (Ed Wright photo)
Brennen Beyer's hit on Ben Merbler forced a fumble that Donte Fox scooped up and carried into the end zone. (photo courtesy of PlymouthPictures.com)
Kevin Buford scored the Chiefs' lone TD after hauling in a Ben Merbler pass from 27 yards out. (Ed Wright photo)
Donte Fox stretched his 5-foot-11, 200-pound frame to the limit to score on a 51-yard fumble return. (photo courtesy of PlymouthPictures.com)
Victor Hicks is pursued by Canton linebacker Garrett Bryden. (Chris Fcasni photo)