Saline is relentless, defeats Pioneer 37-21 to take control of the SEC Red Division
Saline — When you think of Saline football, you probably think about the Hornets’ offensive stars, seniors Jeb Palka and Josh Jackson, and its fast paced spread offense.
Yes, the offense has helped Saline remain undefeated but one should be thinking about the other side of the ball as well.
Entering Friday night’s Southeastern Conference game against Ann Arbor Pioneer, Saline had only surrendered six points in three weeks, including two shutouts.
“People overlook our defense, and our defense is trying to constantly get respect,” coach Joe Palka said. “That’s one of the things we talked about tonight. People want to talk about our receivers and Josh (Jackson), and us offensively.
“We have a pretty good defense too.”
Saline’s defense put in the offense in a position to establish itself early and throughout the game in a 37-21 victory over Pioneer.
Saline (6-0, 4-0 SEC Red) was stout defensively early forcing a three-and-out on the opening drive. Saline would ride that momentum and cap an 11-play, 59-yard drive on a 1-yard run by senior Josh Jackson for a 7-0 lead.
On the ensuing drive, Saline’s defense stepped up in a big way.
“It was a game changer,” Palka said. “Our kids could have folded during that drive and they didn’t. That was my key point was the turnover that we caused in the red zone.”
Pioneer (5-1, 3-1) tried to cap an 80-yard drive behind Antjuan Simmons from the two-yard line. The Hornets forced a fumble that caromed into the end zone and was recovered by senior Zach Owings.
That play not only kept the Pioneer offense off the board, it helped spring at 14-0 lead with 50 seconds left in the second quarter.
Jackson’s 19-yard pass to Mike Monahan and Connor Hibbard’s 20-yard run set up Jackson’s 5-yard touchdown run.
“When a play a team of this caliber, you have to limit your mistakes. We couldn’t come out and beat ourselves. That’s what hurt us,” Pioneer coach Jari Brown said.
Pioneer relied on a combination of John Kunec, Jamel Powell and Simmons on the ground all half for a combined 118 yards to steady the team.
But it was a passing play that put the Pioneers in scoring position when Kunec connected with Cedric Benton who sprawled out for a catch at the 4-yard line. On the next play, Simmons cut into the deficit, 14-6, with a 4-yard touchdown run to end the half.
“We needed to get long drives going. Our offense sometimes has to be a good defense because we need to keep guys fresh with five or six minute drives. It’s great to have a nice one-two punch,” Brown said.
Saline started the second half hot on the legs of Hibbard who had 13 carries for 56 yards and two touchdowns. The first was to cap a nine-play drive from one-yard out for a 21-6 lead with 9:15 left in the third quarter.
Saline recovered an onside kick and Hibbard scored his second touchdown for a 28-6 lead.
“He just had pivotal runs all game,” Palka said of his junior running back. “Pioneer was loading the box with seven guys, and we still have to run the football. We missed a block on the one touchdown run, but Connor made a great cut.
“Conner is coming along, and he’s our well kept secret.”
Saline’s defense continued to put pressure on the Pioneer offense with a fumble recovery by Nathan Powers, before the Pioneers offense got a much needed big play to pull within two scores.
Jordan Harris’ 70-yard touchdown run pull Pioneer to within 28-14 with 10:29 remaining in the game.
Jackson and the Saline offense answered right back with a 9-yard touchdown pass on the ensuing drive to junior Bryce Wolma with 6:45 left in the game before the Hornet defense would earn a safety and a 37-14 lead.
Despite the loss Brown knows that his team will rebound and refocus their goals. According to Brown, it’s now about cleaning up the mistakes and finishing the year undefeated.
“We played a good team and we were still able to get yards on the ground. It’s encouraging,” he said.
“We’ll be fine. We just have to refocus and get back to our fundamentals, especially ball security. If we can do those things, we can finish the year undefeated, and hopefully meet Saline down the road.”