Griffin’s Wildcat run sparks Saline to streak-snapping win over Grand Rapids Catholic Central
SALINE — Friday morning, Joe Palka and the Saline coaching staff made a decision not to mess around.
Already down one starting quarterback one game into the season, and facing the prospect of taking on the two-time defending Division 4 champions from Grand Rapids Catholic Central with inexperienced second-stringers behind a brand-new line that is still trying to gel, it didn’t make any sense to keep complicating things.
Take the middle man out of the equation, and put the ball directly into the hands of the play-makers with the Wildcat.
It worked, too, as Temple-bound senior M.J. Griffin ripped off a 77-yard scoring run just before the half to tie it up, and the Hornets used that momentum and an improving defense to score 10 second-half points, ending Catholic Central’s 21-game winning streak with a 17-7 win Friday night.
“Honestly, with some of the personnel that we have, with as young as we are, with our quarterback out, we didn’t have anybody else that was going to be able to get big, chunk plays. He’s the guy that can get big chunk plays. To see him do that, that’s why he’s a Division I player, I guess, and why he’s going to Temple, and once in a while, you’ve gotta do that,” said Palka, who had to balance the Wildcat workload for Griffin and Alex Morrison with their roles as defensive stalwarts.
“It looked good in practice, and you look at it and say, you have (running back Brendan) Munday, you have MJ, Morrison all in the backfield, and they’re all fresh. … The theme was we think we’ve got four or five really good players, and we’ve gotta get the ball in their hands.”
The Hornets (1-1) started Andrew Arbaugh at quarterback in Week 1 against Clinton Township Chippewa Valley, but lost him to injury in the 31-26 loss. That left them with a sophomore, Anthony Ferrari, a junior who’s primarily a safety, Kyle Greenwood, and freshman Luke Hoyt. All took snaps behind center Friday night.
“It was dicey at the quarterback position,” Palka admitted. “They made young-guy mistakes, but they’re going to keep getting better. They should be on the JV team right now. What we had to do was balance that by getting our best athlete the ball, and I thought MJ’s run really was the spark of the turn-around, along with how our defense played. … Really, let’s face it, that’s just getting the ball in your athlete’s hands. It’s nothing that I dialed up. It’s just a kid making a play.”
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Griffin took a high snap from his own 23-yard line, made a move on GRCC linebacker Ethan Lott, and was off to the races.
“The (defensive) end actually crashed down, so I had to make a little move to get to the outside. The plan was to go to the inside, but I went outside, just used my speed in the hole, and was gone,” Griffin said. “I knew I had an opening as soon as I passed that first guy, and I saw that I had a block over there, and a block over there, and there was a lane, and I just hit the hole.”
The Cougars (1-1) controlled much of the first half, scoring on their second possession, and threatening on two other occasions. Their scoring drive started with fumble recovery at their own 10, and driving the field on their second possession after recovering a fumble thanks largely to two long passes from Joe Collins to Nate Trudeau, and capped by a 15-yard hookup between the two.
At that point, one coach was concerned that the Cougars would add on to the lead to quickly put it out of reach, while the other was kicking himself for not getting his team to do just that.
“Hanging around, with only being down 7-0, was critical. For a while, it looked like they may go up 14, and then the floodgates might open,” Palka said. “That’s what I was worried about. When we hung around, really all we needed was a play. We felt our defense was playing better at the end of the first half, but that play by MJ gave the team a spark, and allowed us to hit a home run, and now it’s a different story.”
“We had a couple of opportunities in the first half to put it up 14-0, and a potential to even go up 21 — we had the ball on their side of the 50, and didn’t get anything out of it. I think the big learning experience from our standpoint is that negative plays kill us, and from that standpoint, clean some things up. We’ll do that tomorrow morning, and be ready to roll,” said GRCC’s Todd Kolster, downplaying the significance of Griffin’s play as decisive. “I don’t know if it was the turning point. We still had plenty of opportunities after that. It was a big play for them.”
An interception by Connor Terech near midfield ended GRCC’s first drive of the second half, and the Hornets used the short field to punch it in on a 7-yard run by Munday. The senior running back’s 32-yard scamper on Saline’s next drive set up a 19-yard James Turner field goal to make it 17-7 with more than three minutes left in the third quarter.
Plenty of time for the Cougars to make a comeback.
But they didn’t mount much of one until they were almost out of time.
Saline ground the clock down under four minutes, driving the ball down to the GRCC 1-yard line, threatening to make it a three-score game. But a fumble turned it over to the Cougars with 3:55 left, potentially setting up a storybook ending. With their specialists practicing the onside kicks on the sidelines, the Cougars drove 97 yards in just over three minutes, twice converting third downs and once a fourth-and-2 to set up a first-and-goal at the 10 with more than a minute left. Four more plays netted just 9 more yards, though, and they turned it over on downs at the 1, with 43 seconds left, effectively ending their winning streak.
It dated back to a Week 8 loss to Grand Rapids West Catholic in 2016, as they went a perfect 14-0 last year, but it wasn’t something they discussed or dwelt upon.
“What streak? Winning streak? No. Never talked about it,” Kolster said. “We’ve gotta get a lot better. We know that. I think the great thing is how hard our kids played. They played hard. And that I’m proud of them for. Clean up a few things from a coaching standpoint, to make it a little easier on them, and then I think, again, we’ve got a chance to be pretty good.”