Saline (10-0) hosts Canton (9-2) at 7 p.m. Friday in a rematch of last year’s regional championship.
Last year, on a cold, snowy night at Hornet Stadium, Saline QB Josh Jackson had a career day (27-of-33 passes, 345 yards, 4 TDs, 14 rushes, 90 yards, 2 TDs) as Saline came from behind to defeat Canton 42-35 and advance to the state semifinal for the first time in program history.
The winner of Friday’s regional championship will advance to the semifinal against Cass Tech (9-2) or Macomb Dakota (9-2). On the other side of the bracket, Rockford (8-3) visits Grand Ledge (11-0) and Detroit Catholic Central (9-2) visits Romeo (10-1).
Coach Joe Palka said Canton comes to Saline with every intention of settling the score. Saline-Canton has all the making of a long-term playoff rivalry. Saline has been in the regional three times in four years. Canton has reached the regional for the second straight year and has made it this far eight times since 2000.
“If both programs do a good job every year, it’s almost a given that we’ll meet them sometime in the playoffs,” Palka said. “It should be a great game.”
Last year’s game was thriller. Canton jumped to 21-7 and 28-14 leads, but the Hornets stormed back to win.
“I do feel like points will be scored. It could be last man standing again,” Palka said with a laugh. “But nothing surprises me anymore. We always say, we’ve just got to find a way to win by one. It’s could be 15-14 or it could be 32-31.”
Last year, the Chiefs ran wild on the Hornets, particularly in the first quarter, when Canton gained 183 of its 370 rushing yards. Fullback Marcus Sanders, who rushed for touchdowns of 49 and 33 yards last year, is back. Jared Stephens and big Jalen Cuchran will also run the football.
This year, since back-to-back losses in early October, the Chiefs have put up no less than 344 points in the last four games. They scored 49 against Stevenson Oct. 15 and in a playoff rematch, beat Stevenson 70-35, before upsetting unbeaten Northville, 34-27.
“They do tons of fakes and love to trap and have the play-action pass. They are really difficult to defend because everyone carries out their fake for 20 yards,” Palka said. “If you’re not disciplined at all 11 positions on defense, you’re going to give up a big play. What we see is everyone going to the wrong guy and the trap runs for a touchdown. They’ve been running this for a long time and they’re good at it.”
Palka said the Hornets’ D-line must stop the trap.
“Once you do that then you can stop the powerplay to the outside. But the key is to stop it from the inside,” Palka said.
Last year, the Hornet defense improved as the game went on. Chris Terech and Cal Criner's 4th-and-2 stop at the Saline five helped the Hornets' preserve the win.
Saline, which scored 37 points or more in eight of the first nine games, has seen its offensive output drop in the playoffs. The Hornets defeated Monroe, 28-14, and Pioneer, 27-23, in SEC Red rematches to advance through the district. Palka was asked if the offensive decline was a result of the Hornet’s not playing as well, or improved opposition.
“It’s tough to beat a good football team twice. Pioneer has one of the best defenses in the area and Monroe played a physical man-to-man defense. That was just good, hard playoff football,” Palka said.
The last two weeks, Saline passing game hasn’t been firing on all cylinders. Against Monroe, Jackson’s target was off. Against Pioneer, the receivers dropped a few passes they’d like back and the officials called back a long touchdown.
Palka said at this point in the season the offense needs to be efficient.
“You never know how many opportunities Canton will give you, so you want to be on your game,” Palka said. “We’ve had a great week of practice. We got a great scout look during the week and practices have been crisp. I like the way Josh (Jackson) has looked in practice. And (WR) Jeb (Palka) was dinged up the last few weeks and he’s faster than he was. (WR) Stevie Kise is better after an ankle issue.”
Defensively, CJ Gildersleeve, the sophomore linebacker who became an integral part of the defense, returned last week in limited duty. He’s expected to play more Friday.
Saline and Canton have played three times since 1950.
Canton defeated Saline, 55-36, in the 2006 regional. Canton defeated Saline 42-21 in the 2008 district final. Saline defeated Canton 42-35 in last year’s regional.