Jack Burke proved Friday night that he’s was more than your normal understudy.
The Northville junior quarterback, filling in for injured starter Justin Zimbo, took on the lead role without a hitch while keeping the Mustangs’ unbeaten season intact with a hard-fought 20-13 homecoming win over Salem.
Burke, who also played full time all night in the secondary, rushed for a team-high 137 yards on 22 carries and scored the game-winning touchdown on a 7-yard keeper to break a 13-13 tie with only 7:08 remaining to push Mustangs’ overall record to 5-0 and 3-0 in the KLAA’s Central Division.
The 6-foot, 184-pound Burke learned mid-week he was getting the start.
“I heard Zimbo wasn’t going to be able to play and just got ready from there,” Burke said. “(Zimbo) gave me some pointers. He just told me, ‘Ball-out, get that victory and move on to next week.’”
Even though Burke took varsity snaps last year as a sophomore, he admitted to some early-game jitters.
“Especially when I came straight from defense I was a little shaky, but I think I settled down a little bit and settled into the game,” Burke said.
Northville struck first with 1:50 left in the first quarter on the first Jake Moody’s two field goals, this one from 31 yards for a 3-0 lead.
But Salem, led by 5-9, 195-pound senior running back Deston Langford, answered just 79 seconds later on Langford’s 20-yard TD run as the Rocks drove 67 yards in just four plays.
But William Neumaier’s extra point attempt hit the left upright to keep the Salem lead at 6-3.
Northville scored on its next possession, capping a six-play, 65-yard drive as Zach Prystash ran around end for a 2-yard TD with 11:18 left in the second quarter.
Moody’s PAT made it 10-6 and the sophomore kicker came through with another field goal, this time from 34 yards out with 2:35 left in the half, to put Northville ahead 13-6.
But with three timeouts in their pocket and despite starting on their own 20, the Rocks moved down the field in 11 plays as Langford, who had 152 yards on 22 carries, bulled in from 2 yards out with only 18 seconds remaining to even the count at 13-13 at intermission.
In the third quarter, a 35-yard run by Burke put the ball in the red zone, but the Rocks thwarted the Northville threat on Calin Crawford’s interception in the end zone.
With the game still tied in the fourth, Burke ran in from 7 yards out for the game-winning TD.
And then Northville’s defense came up with three big stops, including one and a-fourth-and-five and another on a fourth-and-eight with only 1:26 to go.
Northville’s Christian Field also came up with clutch 52- and 40-yard punts on pin Salem back on its own 7 and 16, respectively, on its final two possessions.
Although the Mustangs were outgained in total offense, 368-259, it was their defense which held tough, led by Ryan Nelson, who was in on 12 tackles, along with Michael Minick (11 tackles) and Burke (10 tackles, including four solo).
“We had some opportunities to make some big plays in the first half and we missed,” Northville coach Matt Ladach said. “And as a result, we gave up some big plays. In the second half, we were able to turn it around and make those plays. So really, really great job by our defense – by the players, by the coaching staff. It was just a great team effort.”
Salem quarterback Alex Nicholson was 10-of-21 passing for 154 yards, but the Rocks couldn’t get into the end zone during the second half.
“It’s just the little things that keep bringing us back after something good would happen,” said Salem coach Kurt Britnell, whose team slipped to 2-3 overall and 1-2 in the KLAA Central. “We just couldn’t get the ‘mojo’ going and had a couple good stops there where I thought we could get something going and we just couldn’t do it.”
The Rocks had eight penalties for 85 yards, which didn’t help their cause, while also having a player ejected in the second quarter.
“And we shot ourselves in the foot more than anything else,” Britnell said. “We did it last week and we did it this week. We’re doing it to ourselves. We got our offense going a little bit, even though it doesn’t show it on the scoreboard. Hopefully, we can build on that and stick together and get this thing the rest of the way.”
Salem converted just two of 13 on third down and only one of four on fourth.
“Hopefully, we can work those out,” Britnell said. “There’s a lot of football to be played for us to do what we want to do. We’re good enough, we’re just not showing it. We’ll be all right … I hope.”
Of Northville’s 259 total yards, 214 came on the ground. Burke credited his offensive line.
“They opened up some huge holes and guys just executed,” he said. “Great team effort.”
Ladach, meanwhile, challenged his blockers at halftime.
“We said, ‘Hey, we can hit the edge?’” he said. “We’d been trying to throw the ball, (we) got the whole O-line together in the corner of the locker room and asked them, ‘Can we rely on you?’ And we could.”
And the Mustangs could also rely on Burke, who will be ready for next week’s home game against unbeaten Livonia Stevenson (5-0, 3-0) if called upon.
“With Zimbo being out, we’ve got the most confidence in Jack,” Ladach said. “I’ve been saying it all year, we have to have the best quarterback situation in southeast Michigan. We got two really good players at quarterback and Jack played really well tonight. I’m so proud of him.”
Ladach said Zimbo is expected to play next Friday.
“Actually, there was a little bit of gray area tonight whether he could play or not,” he said. “We were thinking he might be able to play, but for precautionary reasons we held him out and he’s going to be back next week.”