There were many questions about this Saline football team early in the year. Friday night, in the regional final, Saline laid some of those questions to rest, coming from behind to defeat Canton, 42-35. It’s the first regional championship in Saline football history. The Hornets advance to the MHSAA Division 1 final four to play the winner of Saturday’s Chippewa Valley-Cass Tech game.
QB Josh Jackson delivered a monstrous game that made it plain as day why coach Joe Palka put the Saline QB job up for grabs this year. Jackson completed 26 of 32 passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns. He rushed 14 times for 90 yards and two touchdowns.
“We played a great offensive game. The defense got us one stop. That’s what we needed,” Jackson said. “We’re the best team ever in Saline, and I think that’s our legacy. But we’re not done yet.”
A Saline defense that couldn’t stop Canton in the first half settled down to limit the Chiefs to just seven points in the second half.
“We had to hope to God that Josh Jackson and all his swagger would get that offense going while we figured out what was going on. Our coaching staff is unbelievable at making adjustments,” said linebacker Chris Terech, who made 21 tackles, including two huge stops on fourth down. “Our motto was ‘one stop.’ We got two or three. Tonight we celebrate. We’re the best team in Saline history, and we’re nowhere near done.”
The historic victory answered all kinds of questions about this team. Yes, Cam Cole (seven catches, 112 yards and 1 TD) and Chris Mercer (five catches, 45 yards, 2 TDs) are as fast, strong and skilled as they look. Yes, this Saline team can beat one of the best rushing teams in the state. And, yes, the Hornets can come from behind and hang on to beat a tough opponent.
Saline learned quickly that the Chiefs were every bit as good as advertised. On a snowy turf at Hornet Stadium, the Chiefs went 65 yards on six plays, capped by a 33-yard run by Brian Newton.
“Everyone talks about the system, but their line fires off the ball better than anyone we’ve played all year. They’re not as big Westland John Glenn. But that O-Line was incredible,” Terech said, crediting his opponent.
Saline got the seven points back on the next drive, despite a penalty and a 10-yard loss on a fumbled reverse. On 3rd-and-7 from the Canton 22, Jackson broke two tackles and delivered a 16 yard run. A play later, Jackson found Mercer for a six-yard touchdown.
The Chiefs’ running backs were unstoppable in the first half. On the next drive, Canton converted two third-and-longs. The 64-yard-drive ended with a one-yard run by Charles Turfe. Canton led 14-7 with 1:58 to play in the quarter.
QB Trent Theisen came out for Saline’s next drive, which started at Canton’s 39 after a good punt return by Zach Schwartzenberg, and was sacked on first down. Two incomplete passes later, the Hornets were punting. Canton took over at its 35. A couple plays later, Marcus Sanders busted loose for a 49-yard touchdown. Canton led 21-7 late in the first quarter.
The air seemed to get really frosty at Hornet Stadium, but there was no hint of panic in the Hornets.
“As a staff, we have to do the same thing we preach to the kids. Before the game we said you just have to keep playing hard every play, up 14 or down 14. I think all of us, staff included, did a good job of not panicking and continuing to fight to try to make plays,” Saline head coach Joe Palka said.
Jackson re-entered the game at QB.
“We just knew we had to keep scoring. That was going to be the biggest factor in the game,” Jackson said.
The Hornets began at their 29 and moved quickly down the field with passes to Cole and Jeb Palka (10 catches, 112 yards). Jackson found Kevin Gross on the Saline sideline for a 23-yard touchdown. Ben Stankovic’s kick made it 21-14.
The Chiefs continued to pile up rushing yards on their next possession. Saline stopped Canton on 3rd-and-3 at the Canton 45, but Turfe rushed for a first down on 4th-and-1. Four plays later, Sanders rushed for his second touchdown of the game, a 32-yard dart through the Saline defense. Canton led 28-14 with 4:56 to play in the half.
The Hornets continued to attack with passes underneath the coverage. Whenever Jackson needed a couple yards, he tucked the ball in and hit the holes. The drive ended with Mercer making a diving catch in the end zone along the Saline sideline. The Hornets were down 28-21 with 2:05 left in the half.
“We knew we’d rally back. We practice this stuff all the time. We’re ready for it. The team doesn’t give up. We don’t know how to lose,” Mercer said.
Coach Palka didn’t want to let the Chiefs eat up the last two minutes of the half with a potential scoring drive, so he called for an onside kick.
“I have confidence in that team and in that kicker. We practice it all the time and he’s good at it. We almost always get it. Against a team that eats the clock, you’ve got to steal a possession. We were going to do it, it was just a matter of when to do it,” Palka said.
It proved to be the right time.
Stephen Slattery picked up the onside kick.
“It was meant for Travis Brown but it hit a few guys. I saw it sitting there and picked it up,” Slattery said. “I knew if we picked it up we’d score.”
Saline took over at its 46. Jackson pushed Saline into the red zone with two passes to Palka and Cole. Saline converted a 3rd-and-4 with a short pass to Palka, putting Saline inside the 10. Two plays later, from the four, Jackson dove into the end zone. Stankovic’s kick tied the game at 28 with 44 seconds left.
The quick-strike Hornet offense was in full effect.
The Hornets began the third quarter with the ball and great field position at the Canton 49 when the Chiefs attempted an onside kick. A rush by Gross kept the chains moving on third down. Jackson and Palka connected for another first down. Two plays later, Cam Cole found himself wide open on the doorstep of the end zone. Jackson’s lofty pass came down in time for Cole to catch it, turn and run into the end zone. In just 5:08, the Hornets had turned a 28-14 deficit into a 35-28 advantage.
“We just practiced hard all week. We knew we were going to have to attack with the passing game and we just came through and everyone was balling tonight,” Cole said. “We just wanted to keep making plays and keep making plays. We all knew if we kept making plays that we’d eventually get the lead.”
Cole and Mercer had their biggest games of the year for Saline. Jackson said his receiving corps is underrated.
“They’re all great receivers. Sometimes we don’t get them the ball because we score so quick,” Jackson said. “Having that many plays and those long drives lets us get them the ball and they made plays.”
The Hornet defense finally applied the brakes on the Canton attack. The Chiefs moved 70 yards down the field when the Hornets stopped them on 4th-and-2 at the Saline five. Chris Terech stopped QB Greg Williams on a keeper.
“I was shuffling over. I shuffle until I see a hole. I saw the QB with the ball so I got him. It was close. I got him by an inch,” Terech said.
It was another pivotal moment of the game, Palka said.
“If they punch it in there, it’s probably a different result. Even though they got the ball back and we weren’t able to do much with it, it’s just a critical stop,” Palka said. “We knew they were going to get their yards, but we made the critical plays when we needed to.”
Saline took over deep in their own territory and couldn’t move. Brown punted from the end zone. Canton took over with great field position. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Greg Williams passed to Nolan Gilo in the end zone. The game was tied at 35.
Saline took over at their 31 with 11:54 to play. Two passes to Cole moved the chains. Then a short pass to Palka resulted in a big gain – even with a holding penalty, Saline was at the Canton 34. Saline gained eight more yards on a pass to Bryce Wolma (four catches, 53 yards). The next two plays were unproductive. Facing a 4th-and-2 at the 26, Jackson dropped back and threw a bullet to Wolma to keep the drive alive. Two plays later, Jackson rushed up the middle and then cut back toward the Saline sideline for an 18-yard touchdown. Saline led 42-35 with 7:52 to play.
Palka was impressed with his QB.
“What impressed me the most was that he took shots when he made some of those passes and he was really unflappable. The heat of the moment and the pressure of the situation never really got to him,” Palka said.
The Saline defense needed another stop. Canton made good on a 4th-and-7 when Williams, under heavy pressure, passed over the middle and found Micah Rinke for 17 yards and a first down at the Saline 47. Two plays later the Chiefs went to the air again to complete a 3rd-and-7. That’s where the Hornet defense drew the line. Tyrone Miller was in on tackles on first and second down, setting up a 3rd-and-7 that netted six yards. On 4th-and-1, Terech and the Saline defense stopped the Chiefs.
The Chiefs got the ball back with 16 seconds left but the Hornets wouldn’t let them move.
Saline has won 11 straight games, was undefeated in the SEC, won the SEC Red and has now won district and regional championships.
“I said a week ago that this team has far surpassed my expectations. But now it’s kind of crazy. We may keep going. We may do something really special,” Palka said. “11 straight wins. The first regional title. There’s been enough said. t’s just an unbelievable group of kids.”
- Josh Jackson – There were a lot of questions around Saline football this year when Jackson began splitting time with returning senior QB Trent Theisen. After all, Theisen put up pretty sweet numbers and led the Hornets to a 9-2 record last year. Jackson laid those questions to rest Friday, once and for all with an all-state caliber performance. In the passing game, he took everything Canton gave him, and then some. He didn’t force it. He’s also a powerful runner who finds the holes. And it seems like the more crucial the play, the more tackles he breaks.
- Cam Cole – There are only so many passes to go around. The 6’2, 200-pound split end answered the bell Friday, catching seven passes for 112 yards and one TD. Like Chris Mercer, who caught two touchdown passes, Cole thrived with the bigger role. On most teams around the states, these guys would be big targets who touch the ball all the time. In Saline, they’re content with fewer plays because it means playing in a multi-faceted, quick-strike offense heading for the state semifinals.
- Chris Terech – The Saline inside linebacker said he didn’t have a very good day. We beg to differ. Quantity: 21 tackles led Saline, by far. Quality: He came up with the stops when Saline needed them most – on two fourth-down attempts in the third and fourth quarter.