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Saline defense stones Rockford 2-point attempt in overtime, sealing one-point win for D1 regional title

By: Matthew B. Mowery, November 10, 2018, 8:15 pm

SALINE — With as much as the Saline Hornets have relied upon their defense throughout this season, it was fitting that, with survival on the line, that unit was on the field doing what it does.

The Hornets’ goal-line defense stoned Rockford on a 2-point conversion attempt at the end of the first overtime, sealing a 13-12 win for Saline, and clinching the program’s second regional title.

“I don’t ever think we’ve won like that, as dramatically. We hadn’t scored a touchdown all game, then get a touchdown in overtime, and win it on stopping them. It doesn’t get any more dramatic than that, I’ll be honest with you. … We’ve had big wins at different times, but to win a game in that fashion, with those high stakes — it’s incredible,” said Saline coach Joe Palka.

“I don’t know what to think. It’s just an unbelievable feeling. I just told the kids I don’t ever think I’ve been a part of a win like that. All the way down, with 1.5 yards to go, and to make a stop like that, what a statement for our defense. I’m so proud of our kids. They just battled their tails off all night.”

The win avenges last year’s season-opening loss to the Rams, and sends Saline on to the Division 1 semifinals, where the Hornets (11-1) will face defending D1 champion Clarkston (10-2). They’ll play at 1 p.m. next Saturday, at Okemos High School, with the winner heading to Ford Field.

“This feels good. Amazing. … I was about ready to cry. You could see a couple people were crying. It was a high moment,” said senior M.J. Griffin, who scored the Hornet’s touchdown on the first possession of the overtime period, putting them up 13-6 at the time. “The game plan is just win, win by one. You can see right there, we won by one. That’s the game plan for right now. Just win by one.”

That one point was the critical one.

And the stage was set for that singe-digit drama in regulation, when junior defensive back Noah Nelson, who lines up just inside Griffin on the field goal block unit, got a hand on the ball to block what would’ve been the go-ahead extra point, after the Rams tied it up on Jack Richardson’s 60-yard punt return for a touchdown with 4:46 left in the fourth.

That left it 6-6, and seemingly destined for overtime.

“That was huge. I’m just happy to give the seniors two more games, hopefully,” said Nelson, who had to turn and look to make sure the partially blocked ball didn’t sneak over the uprights, anyway. “MJ is on the left of me. There’s always going to be a gap, and I just happened to have the gap. I just go in there, and put my hand up, and block it. … I turned around, I saw it going up, and I was so scared, nervous that it was going to go in.”

“I talked to him before that play, like ‘Yo, man, you gotta go get this.’ Because he was going right after me,” Griffin said. “I’m so proud of him. We did what we had to do to get that block.”

The rest was just defense — on both sides.

The Rams, who started 1-3 before winning four of their final five to sneak into the playoffs at 5-4, extending their streak of playoff appearances to 24 seasons, were trying to make the most of their second season, beating Hudsonville last week their first district title in three seasons.

They stifled the Hornets for most of the game, holding them to 168 total yards and a pair of James Turner field goals (18 and 35 yards).

“A good defense. They shut us out last year, and we knew it would be difficult this year, and it was. I’ve got a lot of respect for them. It’s just a good football program. When you get a win against those guys, it’s a big one,’ Palka said. “We were struggling to move the ball. (Running back Brendan) Munday was out, Murph (tight end Brendan Murphy) got banged up a little bit, so every point’s important, and when you block that extra point, you give us life. That’s what our coaches on the headset said, ‘That gives us life. Let’s go.’”

The Hornets had one last chance to reclaim the lead but — even though they were trying to play for overtime — turned it over to give the Rams one last chance to win it in regulation. Ian Rodriguez’s interception with 25 seconds left set up a 45-yard field goal attempt by the Rams at the buzzer, but it fell short, sending it to overtime.

With the way his defense was playing — holding the Rams to 203 total yards and scoreless on offense — Palka considered just kicking the field goal in overtime and letting his defense take care of it.

“We to a point now, honestly, where we’re playing through our defense. … Every point is hard to come by against us right now. … When you can hang your had on a defense like that, you know you’re going to be in every game,” he said. “Frankly, I was content to kick the three points, because I thought our defense would hold, so the touchdown was a bonus, but we needed it.”

Griffin ran the ball twice out of the Wildcat, getting it from the 10 down to the 1 on the first carry, then into the end zone on the second.

Rockford answered with a touchdown of its own, when Richardson threw a halfback option pass, lobbing it in the corner of the end zone for Nate Bareno for a touchdown.

The question was to go for the win or not, at that point.

The Rams had moved the ball on the ground with junior Jaiden Friesen (22 carries, 88 yards) for enough of the game to force the Hornets to bring in their bigger defensive linemen — putting 6-foot-4, 270-pound Henry Konen on the nose — and running a five-man front.

“We had put a five D-lineman look in as sort of a supplemental package,” Palka said. “Our coordinator told me at the end of the game, ‘It’s a good thing we did, because we needed to have it, for sure.’”

Earlier in the game, the Rams turned it over on downs three times— twice on short-yardage plays, and once on a failed fake punt pass. But Rockford coach Ralph Munger chose to put the ball back in Friesen’s hands, and he was stuffed short of the goal line, ending the game.

“That was really our D-line. The four or five guys up there really played their butts off this game. It was all them that really pushed the line back, and helped us get through there,” Griffin said. “Just guard your man, and make sure he does not get in. We did what we had to do, and we stopped them.”

It’s not a game that will be easily forgotten by the Hornets, at least.

“It’s crazy, crazy. I’ll remember this for the rest of my life. We all will,” Nelson said. “Such a fun game.”