By MICHAEL BLEACH
For The Daily News
HOUGHTON - The Michigan Tech football program has asked a lot of senior linebacker Taylor Ziolkowski in four years.
Mining Gazette Photos
MTU’s Taylor Ziolkowski of Goodman, Wis., had a career-high 17 tackles against Wayne State Saturday.
He was asked to play in the middle of the defense despite being a bit undersized. He was asked to ignore the bruises and pain, and continue to show up every day with intensity and zeal. He was asked to be the verbal and emotional leader of his defense his senior year.
And Saturday, he was asked to make one final play, to take the Huskies off the field winners in their final game of the season and the final game of nine seniors' careers.
As he always has, 'Z' had the answer.
With a 28-21 lead hanging precariously in the balance against Wayne State and less than a minute left in the contest, the Warriors dropped back to pass from Tech's 20-yard line looking for a hit over the middle to set up an end zone attempt the next play.
As Wayne quarterback Doug Griffin rolled right, he spotted a wide receiver crossing over the middle and let fire.
Ziolkowski spotted the same thing.
The senior middle linebacker jumped the route, holding firm to the third and final interception of his career. Tech was able to kneel out the victory from there, ending the season with a 6-4 record and giving the seniors a 28-13 mark for their four-year career- the best of any Husky class since 1976.
"There is no better way to end," Ziolkowski said. "No better way.
"I did not want to leave that spot for the rest of my life."
"You make an interception, in the redzone, to end the game, in your last game.
Wow," Tech coach Tom Kearly said. "All we need now is a cheerleader running out from the third row and they will live happily ever after."
The interception came unexpectedly, as Tech followers didn't think Wayne would get the ball back with a chance to win at all.
Following a physical defensive stand at their own 12-yard line on third-and-three and fourth-and-three with under two minutes to go, the Huskies were trying to run out the clock with freshman running back Kevin Miller after junior back Charlie Leffingwell had left the game injured on the previous drive.
Miller looked sharp for one 15-yard carry, picking up what should have been a devastating first down, but showed his inexperience two plays later with a lost fumble amid a scrum of bodies.
So with the defense getting set to celebrate on the sidelines, they were called on suddenly to make a stop.
"That is 'Z.' He makes plays when plays need to be made," Senior fullback Cole Welch said.
The defense wouldn't have been in that position at all, however, if quarterback Tyler Scarlett and the offense didn't recover from a error-filled first half.
Scarlett threw three interceptions in the first two quarters (one came off a dropped pass) and the offense gained just 102 yards as a whole.
Receiving the ball to start the third quarter though, running back Charlie Leffingwell ripped off 63 yards in seven carries to find the end zone and tie the game at 14-14.
"We were just trying to set that physical tone," Welch said. "Just be physical and let Leffingwell do his thing."
Two drives later, Scarlett found Andrew Clark for a 41-yard touchdown on an impressive piece of play-calling from Kearly.
The Huskies faked a bubble screen - a pass they had hit four times in the first half - and as the Wayne safety bit down, Clark streaked past him from the slot undefended.
That pass - and 217 yards total - moved Scarlett to No. 1 all time in the Tech record book for passing yards, giving him 7,554 in just three seasons, to move ahead of Steve Short (7,471) on the list.
"He is a pretty resilient kid," Kearly said. "He made a lot of plays in the second half."
Tech took the lead for good in the fourth quarter when Scarlett found Welch in the flat for a four-yard scoring pass.
It was an especially memorable moment for Welch as the senior was playing on an injured PCL in his final game.
"I didn't even know if I was going to play this week," Welch said. "But last one, home game, senior night - I had to try."
"It is just a flood of every kind of emotion you could ever think of," Welch added. "You think about this moment your entire football career - and its like, 'you know, I have a whole another season or four more games,' - then all of the sudden you have nothing left, it's over.
At Whitewater, Wis., fifth-ranked UW-Whitewater defeated UW-River Falls 43-6 to earn an eighth Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference football title in the last nine years.
The Warhawks (10-0), with Norway's Brady Grayvold starting at cornerback, will begin play in the NCAA III playoffs Saturday against St. Norbert College. Whitewater will be making its eighth NCAA playoff appearance in nine years.
At Big Rapids, senior Christian Jessie returned the opening kick-off 100 yards to put the Northern Michigan University Wildcats up 7-0, but Jon Vander Laan and the Ferris State Bulldogs proved to be too much for the Wildcats to handle.
The Bulldogs used 536 yards of total offense to defeat the Wildcats, 35-22, in the final game of the 2013 Northern Michigan University Football season.
The Wildcats finished the season 3-7 overall and in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.