Saline defeated Pioneer 37-21 on a chilly Homecoming night at Hornet Stadium to clinch at least a share of the SEC Red championship and a playoff spot for the fourth straight season.
QB Josh Jackson completed 15-of-20 passes for 134 yards and 1 touchdown and rushed 17 times for 66 yards and two touchdowns to lead Saline’s offense. Jeb Palka caught 10 passes for 96 yards to become Saline’s all-time leader in receiving yards (1,591). Connor Hibbard rushed 12 times for 56 yards and two touchdowns.
“This was a big win. This is a talented Pioneer team and they tested us today,” Saline coach Joe Palka said. “It gives us a share of the title right now. We don’t want to share it.”
Saline visits Monroe next Friday looking for its second straight perfect SEC Red season and sole ownership of the SEC Red championship.
The rivals from up the road provide Saline with its stiffest competition since Rockford in opening week. Saline mostly contained talented running back Antjuan Simmons (16 rushes, 81 yards, 1 TD on offense). And at the end of the day, Saline only outgained Pioneer 335-282. But as the Hornets proved so often last year, yards don’t win football games. Big plays win football games.
Saline forced Pioneer to punt after three downs on its first possession. Saline took over at its 21 after a 16 yard return by Stevie Kise. Jackson on an 11-play, 79-yard scoring drive, using short passes, the running game and a 15-yard penalty for a late hit to move the ball.
On 3rd-and-1 from the 15, Jackson tucked it in, jumped over a downed Pioneer, and fought his way to the two.
Two plays later, he dove in from a half-yard out. Will Breen’s kick made it 7-0 five minutes into the game.
Pioneer’s next drive went 17 plays and 78 yards, stretching into the second quarter.
On 2nd-and-G from the 2, QB John Kunec tried to run it into the end zone. John Raupp, Justice Moss and Sean O’Keefe all got to Kunec before he reached the goal line, and O’Keefe knocked it loose
The ball bounced into the end zone, where Zachary Owings (9.5 tackles) recovered it and ended the Pioneer drive.
“We have a little motto, ‘Bend, don’t break.’ They can go 79 yards, but we’re going to hold the line and not let them get any farther,” O’Keefe said.
Palka said it might have been the biggest play of the game.
“That’s what it’s all about. Our defense could have quit at any point in that series. That’s why we always say ‘Keep playing. Play the next play.’ That was just a huge turn of events,” Palka said. “That was a great play by our defense and maybe the biggest play of the game.”
Saline took over at their 20. They went backwards after a holding call. On 3rd-and-15, Jackson threw to Mike Monahan (3 catches, 31 yards, 2 first downs) along the sideline for first down at the Saline 39. A couple of first down runs by Palka (247 all-purpose yards), Jackson and Hibbard moved the ball deep into Pioneer territory.
On the 12th play of the drive, Josh Jackson rushed in from five yards out and dove over the goal-line. After Breen’s kick, Saline led 14-0 3:59 into the quarter.
The Pioneers responded with a 14-play, 77-yard drive that took seven minutes off the clock. Along the way, Kunec completed a 4th-and-4 pass to Corey Frenette for a first down. On 3rd-and-8, Cedric Benton made a spectacular leaping catch for a 26-yard gain to the Saline four. On the next play, Simmons rushed up the middle for a touchdown. The kick was a foot wide. Saline led 14-6 with 50 seconds to play in the half.
The Hornets took over in the third quarter. Palka returned it 35 yards to the Saline 41. Jackson passed once to Palka for a short gain. On another short pass, Palka picked up big yardage after the catch for a first down at the Pioneer 30. Again, Jackson passed to Palka, this time for a 17-yard pickup. From there, Jackson rushed twice for a first down at the one. After a holding call, Jackson rushed for an 11-yard pick up, back to the one.
Hibbard rushed in for the touchdown. After Breen’s kick, Saline led 21-6 2:45 into the third.
That’s when coach Joe Palka went to his bag of tricks, calling for an on-side kick. It’s a play Palka called with a lot more frequency in season’s past.
“We practice it all the time and we’re pretty good at it. We haven’t had the need this year,” Palka said. “We felt with them being a strong rushing team and able to eat clock, that was the time to do it and get another possession and it paid off.”
Will Breen lined up for the kick.
“We work on it throughout the year, every practice. It’s our special occasion kick. I take my normal approach, barely hit it, it goes 10 yards and I jump on it,” Breen said. “Last year we ran it a couple times and I didn’t get to jump on it. This year it was right there, so I took the opportunity and jumped on it. It was a huge momentum changer because Josh drove the ball down there and we scored.”
Saline took over the 48. A big passing play to Palka was called back on a holding penalty. But rushes by Jackson and Hibbard gave Saline a first down at the Pioneer 38. On second down, Palka gained 15 yards on a sweep. A few plays later, Jackson rushed for another first down to the Pioneer 4.
Two plays later, Hibbard followed the offensive line over the goal line. Saline led 28-6 6:06 into the third quarter.
Pioneer’s next drive ended at midfield when O’Keefe hit Kunek and knocked the ball loose. Dylan Powers won the battle for the loose ball and Saline took over at the Pioneer 49 with 2:30 to play in the quarter. Penalties caused the Saline drive to sputter. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Breen’s 32-yard punt was caught for a fair catch at the Pioneer 8. A couple plays later, on 2nd-and-5 from the 30, Jordan Harris got a great block in the secondary and he sprinted through a gaping hole and scored a 70-yard touchdown. Pioneer passed for a two-point play and Saline held a 28-14 lead 1:31 into the fourth.
The Pioneer’s comeback hopes were shortlived. Jeb Palka returned the kickoff 65 yards to the Pioneer 25. Though Palka didn’t score, it was one of his best performances of the year. The elusive receiver had the Pioneers chasing him all over the field.
“He may have played the best game of his career in terms of fighting off tackles and getting yards after contact. He has good balance and good hips and the ability to make guys miss,” Palka said. “Tonight there were times when we didn’t block anybody on top of him and he still made positive yards. It was great to see that.”
A few plays later, on 3rd-and-13, Jackson passed to Monahan on the sideline for a first down at the 13. Palka rushed for four yards on a sweep.
On 2nd-and-6 from the nine, Jackson found Bryce Wolma in the middle of the end zone. Wolma took a big hit to the back but held on. After Breen’s kick, Saline led 35-14 4:16 into the fourth.
The two teams exchanged unsuccessful drives. Kicker Will Breen lined up to punt.
“I hit it well and the wind started taking it. I definitely thought the ref was running back there to say it was a touchback, but he spotted it at the one,” Breen said.
The Pioneers got in trouble when the snap never made its way into Kunec’s hands.
Saline’s defense rushed in, with Alec Richards, CJ Gildersleeve and Dylan Powers dropping the ball carrier in the back of the end zone for a safety. Saline led 37-14.
Pioneer added a late touchdown when Saline botched a pitch and Simmons recovered and ran it back for a 65-yard touchdown.
A last-ditch on-side kick attempt failed and Saline ran out the clock.
A&H Lawn Service Saline Football Three Stars
- Jeb Palka: Palka gained 247 all purpose yards, electrifying the huge homecoming crowd with kickoff returns, pass receptions and rushes. The elusive runner set the table for the Hornet offense all night long.
- Sean O’Keefe: It seems like the bigger the O-Line, the better O’Keefe plays. O’Keefe made two tackles Friday. He also forced two fumbles that were recovered by Saline.
- Josh Jackson: Led the team with 66 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Completed 15 of 20 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown. In terms of passing efficiency, Jackson put on a clinic. He also gained tough yards against a fast and physical Pioneer defense.
Play of the Game
Saline led 7-0 and the Pioneers, led by Antjuan Simmons, were looking dangerous to end the first quarter, powering all the way to the Saline 2. But there, behind scrimmage, Sean O'Keefe, John Raupp and Justice Moss met Simmons, and O'Keefe jarred the ball loose. Zachary Owings scooped up the ball in the end zone and Saline scored on the next possession.