MONROE -- Saline defeated Monroe 28-0 Friday to win the SEC Red championship for the second straight season and the third time in four seasons.
Saline, 7-0, finished the conference season with a 5-0 record for the second straight season. The Hornets out scored their SEC Red rivals 195-27. Saline is home to Ypsilanti next week. The Grizzlies (4-3) beat Chelsea 34-24 and are riding a four-game winning streak.
Coach Joe Palka said the SEC Red conference championship was an important accomplishment for his team.
“At the beginning of the season this was a brand new team with its own set of goals, looking to create its own identity. I think we’ve done that now to a certain extent,” Palka said. “This is a tough league. We go week-in, week-out against tough competition. To go undefeated in the league is a huge accomplishment.”
QB Josh Jackson completed 10 of 17 passes for 136 yards and three touchdowns. He was thrilled to win the conference title.
“It’s awesome. And to go undefeated and win for the second year in a row. It’s a great feeling and it’s a great accomplishment for this team,” Jackson said.
For junior DE Sean O’Keefe, the undefeated SEC Red season was a validation of all the hard work the defense has put in.
“Winning the SEC means the world to me. Last year we lost all those great seniors and there were questions about whether we could do it again,” O’Keefe said. “To do it again and to end it that way (with a goal-line stand), it’s a great feeling.”
Monroe limited the Hornets’ time of possession and kept Saline’s offense a little off balance in the first half. Josh Jackson’s 30-yard touchdown strike to Bryce Wolma at 6:51 of the first quarter was Saline’s only offense in the half. But the Hornets turned the game on its ear early in the third quarter. Jackson passed to Zach Schwartzenberger for a 19-yard touchdown 1:33 into the quarter. The defense forced a three-and-out and then Stevie Kise returned the punt 68 yards for a touchdown for a 21-0 lead. Jackson threw to Jeb Palka for a 15-yard touchdown in the fourth.
Saline survived a goal-line stand to preserve the shutout.
“We’ve said it before. We’ll bend, but we don’t break. It shows how tough our defense is. They questioned our toughness and I think we stuck it to them,” O’Keefe said.
The game began with Will Breen’s kick off driving into the end zone for a touchback. Monroe’s spent its first possession doing what it did for most of the game: Going nowhere slowly. The Trojans managed couple first downs (including one 4th-and-1 from the 39) and got out to midfield before a second fourth-down conversion failed. The Hornets took over at the Monroe 47 with 6:27 to play in the half. After a couple runs by Jackson, Saline gained a first down at the 30.
On the next play, Jackson feathered a pass just beyond the diving cornerback and into the hands of big tight end Bryce Wolma, who caught that pass and ran 15 yards into the end zone for the touchdown. Breen’s kick made it 7-0.
Despite the quick start, that was all the Hornets would score in the first half.
Monroe’s next drive started at the 20 and moved to midfield before John Raupp sacked Monroe QB Travis Kellems for a seven-yard loss. The Trojans punted two plays later. Saline took over at its 11 to start the second quarter and after a first-down sweep by Palka, the Monroe defense held their ground. Saline punted from its 32. Monroe took over at its 28. Saline was penalized for a late hit on first down, Monroe the ball at midfield. But the Hornet defense gave up next to nothing. On 4th-and-5, Cal Livesay and Tyler Plocki stopped the Monroe runner and Saline took over at its 42. But the Hornets got in trouble on first down when Palka was dropped for a five-yard loss on a screen pass. Three plays later, Breen punted. Monroe started at its own 33 with 5:59 to play in the half. They gained one first down on the ground but punted four plays later after CJ Gildersleeve tackle on 3rd-and-12. Stevie Kise returned the punt 40 yards and Saline took over at the 43. After two failed long passes, Jackson through to Palka for a first down. A pass to Stevie Kise gave Saline nother first at the 20. A field attempt by Breen was low and Saline led 7-0 at halftime.
Jackson said the Hornet offense had some difficulty getting on track.
“We didn’t have the ball much so it was kind of hard to get going. The first drive we were warm. And then the next couple drives there were penalties. But we got going in the second half,” Jackson said.
“We were in tough field position early and then we were in a situation where we just had to throw the ball. We wanted more points in the first half and we didn’t get it,” Palka said. “I think they brought more pressure than we expected. So we’ll go back and look at a few things. But I think we adjusted really well in the second half.”
Jeb Palka got things started in the second half with a 34-yard kickoff return to the Saline 39. Jackson spotted Wolma on the Saline sideline. He caught the pass and broke a tackle for a first down at the Monroe 46. After runs by Connor Hibbard and Jeb Palka, Saline had a fresh set of downs at the 32. Jackson found Wolma for an 18-yard pickup. The Hornets were sent back five yards for an illegal formation.
On the next play, Jackson passed to Zach Schwartzenberger on the Saline sideline. Schwartzenberger bounced off one tackler and dove over the goal line for the touchdown. Breen’s kick made it 14-0 1:33 into the third quarter.
Breen’s kickoff went into the endzone for a touchback. On first down, Justin Shelton brought down the running back for no-gain. On second down, Call Livesay stopped the running back for a two-yard gain. On third down, John Raupp caught up to Jalen Wilkerson and stopped him after a four-yard gain.
On 4th-and-4 from the 26, Monroe punted. Steve Kise caught it at the Saline 32 in the middle of the field. He started to his right and bounced back to his left to fight off the first tackler. Then he shot back to his right and then back to his left to shake the next one. He bounced to the outside and sprinted up the Monroe sideline, untouched until he crossed the goal line. Breen’s kick made it 21-0.
Playmakers make plays.
“You can take Jeb away, and we have Stevie Kise. You can take Bryce Wolma away, and then we have Connor Hibbard. It’s nice to have those guys and we try to do a lot with them in formations and it paid off today,” Palka said.
O’Keefe said the defense knew that if they held the line, the offense would find a way.
“You look at who’s on our roster, and I knew we’d break one loose eventually. We knew if the defense did our job, they’d do their job and we’d come out victors,” O’Keefe said.
Monroe threatened later in the third when Carson Clark got a great block and shot up the middle for a 62-yard gain to the Saline 21. Zachary Owings chased down Clark from behind to prevent the touchdown. The Trojans were penalized for holding. Nathan Powers dropped the the running back for loss. A few plays later, on 4th-and-4, the Hornet defense, led by Daniel Wiedmayer, stopped Jovan Johnson.
Saline took over at their 21. The next drive was the Jeb Palka show. Palka gained a first down with a sweep. Then he picked up six more yards with another run.
On the next play, Palka ran the sweep again. But this time, before hitting the sideline, he spotted the lane and bounced back to the middle. Palka gained 53 yards before he was tackled at the Monroe 10. On the next play, Palka did the same thing and scored. But the play was called back because of an illegal shift. On the next play, Josh Jackson scrambled and then threw to Palka, who was all alone corner of the end zone.
Palka made the catch and Breen made his kick. Saline led 28-0.
Monroe battled to get on the score board. Late in the fourth, the Trojans converted a 4th-and-4 for a first down at the Saline five. The Trojans gained four yards on first down. On second down, Kellems fumbled the snap and GIldersleeve and O’Keefe dropped him for a three-yard loss. On third down, Nathan Powers seemed to get behind the line of scrimmage faster than the ball. He wrapped up Kellems and brought him down with the help of Shelton and Zachary Rubin for another three yard loss.
On 4th-and-7, Kellems kept it again but had nowhere to go. Saline withstood the challenge and preserved the shutout.
“It was nice for the kids to get that shutout at the end of the day. They were out on the field a lot today and played hard. Monroe’s scheme is tough to deal with. They deserved it,” Palka said. “We knew we were going to give up some yards, but I was really pleased with the way we finished the game.”
A&H Lawn Service Saline Football 3 Stars
1) Jeb Palka – The “jet sweep” was in full force Friday night as Palka rushed for 88 yards (even more, with the called-back touchdown). He also caught a TD pass among his team-leading four receptions. His kick-off return gave the Hornets good field position on their opening drive of the second half. Josh Jackson and Bryce Wolma also had big games on offense.
2) John Raupp – The senior DE showed incredible acceleration, chasing guys down from behind and racing around the outside to meet players in the backfield. Even though he left the game early, he led the Hornets with 11 tackles.
3) Nathan Powers – Powers made several big tackles tonight. He gets great penetration to meet players before they see the hole. Led the team with three tackles for loss. Made seven stops. Zachary Owings, Sean O’Keefe and Cal Livesay had big games, too.
Play of the Game
There were several great plays on offense and defense, but Stevie Kise’s punt return TD gets the call.