It wasn’t pretty, but Saline survived a tough playoff test from a Monroe football team that visited Hornet Stadium bent on an upset.
Josh Jackson rushed for two touchdowns and Robbie Felton returned a fumble recovery 40 yards for a touchdown as Saline (9-0) defeated Monroe (5-5), 28-14, in the district semifinal Friday. Saline advances to play Pioneer (7-3) in next Friday’s district championship game at Hornet Stadium.
“We weren’t perfect. We made some mistakes. But I’m proud of our kids. We had some guys dinged up and we played some younger guys today,” Saline coach Joe Palka said. “Winning a tough, physical game like this where you have fight for every inch is going to make us a better playoff team. I was really happy with our fight today.
In some ways, the Hornets didn’t look the team that cruised to an 8-0 record in the regular season. Sometimes, it was by design. The Hornets rushed 29 times for 204 yards and three touchdowns. That was by design. Connor Hibbard rushed 14 times for 139 yards and Josh Jackson rushed 10 times for 46 yards and two touchdowns. Jeb Palka rushed five times for 19 yards and one touchdown.
“We thought had somethings we could do formationally and thought we had a couple of matchups. What we thought would happen happened,” Palka said. “Connor does such a good job with his cuts and his vision. We thought it was time to take advantage it. We wanted to go right at them a little bit more today.”
But Saline’s notorious aerial attack faltered. Jackson completed just six of 15 passes for 39 yards.
“We weren’t great in the passing game today. We overshot a couple times and our protection broke down a few times,” Palka said. “The one place where the week off might have hurt as a little bit was the passing game. Our timing wasn’t where it normally is.”
Defensively, the Hornets did a lot of bending, giving up 370 rushing yards. But they didn’t break often. Junior DE Sean O’Keefe said the defense proved its toughness during a hard-fought mass
“The defense knew it was going to be a tough game today. They were fired up and they wanted to beat us,” O’Keefe said. “Good teams will break plays out and they did, but all you have to do is win by one, and we won tonight.”
The game began with Monroe returning a kickoff to its 25. Carson Clark and Jalen Wilkerson rushed three times 21 yards and two first downs on the first three plays. An illegal motion penalty sent the Trojans backwards and the Hornet defense shut the drive down.
After a Stevie Kise fair catch, the Hornets put together a 12-play, 78-yard scoring drive that resulted in a two yard rushing touchdown by Jeb Palka.
Palka, Jackson and Connor Hibbard all contributed to the ground attack. Jackson’s lone pass was a 16-yard strike to Mike Monahan on 3rd-and-6. Willi Breen’s kick made it 7-0 7:03 into the game.
Monroe wasted little time returning the favor. The Trojans tied the game with a four-play drive capped by a 31-yard touchdown run by Carson Clark (114 yards).
After a Saline drive stalled out, the Trojans took over to start the second quarter. The Trojans pushed the ball to the Saline 38.
On 4th-and-3, the Trojans put the ball in the hands of Marlon Martin. Saline junior lineman Sean O’Keefe brought him down to end the drive.
“Coach called the right play and the right time and all our guys were in the right spot. A hole opened up and we made a play, so that’s good,” O’Keefe said. “It was a big part of the game and it showed our toughness as a defense.”
Saline’s offense couldn’t find a rhythm. The Hornets went three-and-out.
Monroe took over with 5:52 to play. On 3rd-and-8, QB Travis Kellems scrambled for a first down, but Zachary Owings jarred the ball loose.
“I ran to the ball and saw it pop out. I grabbed it and saw open field so I ran with it,” said Felton, who dove over the goal line as a Trojan tried to tackle him from behind. “It felt great. It was my varsity touchdown and it was at an important part of the game.”
Feldon went 40+ yards for the touchdown. Breen’s kick made it 14-7 with 4:02 to play in the half.
The Hornet defense kept the Trojans at bay for the remainder of the half.
Saline took control of the game with its first possession of the second half. Again, the Hornets went to the ground. Connor Hibbard did most of the damage on an 11-play, 74-yard drive completed by a two-yard touchdown run by Jackson. Breen’s kick made it 21-7 3:56 into the third quarter.
Saline’s defense allowed Monroe to move the ball just 12 yards on its next drive and the Trojans punted. Saline took over at its 45.
Hibbard broke loose for a 39-yard run to the Monroe 15. Palka followed with a nine-yard rush to the six. A penalty pushed the Hornets back to the 18, but Hibbard got those yards back with a 12-yard run.
On 3rd-and-1 from the six, Jackson rushed in. Saline led 28-7 after Breen’s kick and seemed to have the game under control with 4:04 left in the third.
Monroe started its next drive at the 23 and moved the chains on a rush by Clark. The Saline defense looked like it had the Trojans stopped, but on 4th-and-4 from the 40, Jalen Wilkerson found a hole, hit the sideline and went all the way. Monroe was back within two touchdowns.
Nate Gresser recovered the Trojan onside-kick for Saline, but the Hornets went-3-and-out and punted.
Monroe took over at its 27 looking to get within a touchdown. They rushed out to midfield. On 4th-and-2 from the 50, the Hornet defense stopped Clark about four inches short of a first. Saline took over.
Still off-balance, the Hornets struggled to move the ball. A 3rd-and-11 pass to Mike Monahan got Saline close to a first down.
On 4th-and-short, Josh Jackson got his yards, spun out of two tackles, hit the sideline and scored a 41-yard touchdown. The play was called back on an illegal hit. Saline punted.
John Raupp sacked Kellems on first down to put the Trojans in a hole. To the Trojans’ credit, they pushed their way up the field, all the way to the Saline two, where they had a first down with 1:45 to play – enough time to score and try for the onside kick. On first down, Raupp and Blake Buckley stopped Clark for no gain. Clark slipped and lost a yard on second. On third down, Ethan Collick met the Monroe runner behind scrimmage and helped the Hornets take him down for a four-yard loss. Saline stopped Monroe on fourth down and took over on downs.
Tyler Plocki led the defense with 16.5 tackles and a sack. Ethan Collick had 13.5. John Raupp also had 13.5 tackles (two for a loss) and sack. Sean O’Keefe had 9.5 tackles, including one for a loss.
A&H Lawn Service Saline Football 3 Stars
- Connor Hibbard --- Coach Palka decided to put the running game to the test and that put the ball in Connor Hibbard’s hands 14 times. He ran for 139 yard and gained big yardage on all three Hornet scoring drives. Hibbard’s shifty running and ability to bust through tackles was crucial because the passing game struggled today.
- Sean O’Keefe – The junior defensive end had a big day for the Hornets. Big plays. Tough battles. Clutch tackles. The harder the battle, the bigger he plays.
- John Raupp – Another sensational game from the relentless defensive end.
Saline Post Play of the Game:
That goes to Robbie Felton’s fumble return for a touchdown, which was the turning point of the game.