In front of a crowd estimated at 5,000, Saline came out on the wrong side of a defensive struggle, falling 7-6 to Pioneer in a matchup of SEC rivals, Friday at Hornet Stadium.
The Hornets (3-1 overall, 1-1 SEC) gained just 28 yards on the ground and failed to score a touchdown. Pioneer’s Zachary Davis scored on a 24-yard run in the second quarter and Pioneer led 7-0. Gage Hammond kicked two field goals in the second half to get the Hornets within one. Saline’s defense forced five turnovers.
“We couldn’t establish the running game and that made us a little one dimensional. We didn’t sustain any drives,” said Joe Palka, Saline’s head coach. “I think our offense got a little frustrated early. I think we only touched the ball three times in the first quarter.”
Hammond, who caught seven passes for 133 yards, credited the Pioneer defense and said Saline’s defense was equal to the task.
“They’re a big, physical defense. They’re fast and dynamic. But this game could have went either way,” Hammond said. “Our defense played great and that’s something we expect. They have a big offensive line and their running backs run hard and we stopped them on most of their drives.”
Saline’s defense forced five turnovers in the game. Pioneer’s first drive of the game ended on a fumble recovered by John Smutny. Saline went three and out and Pioneer started up the field again. A 50-yard drive stopped at the Saline 15, where a fumble was recovered by Nick Sekerak. Saline’s next drive made it to midfield before the Hornets punted it away. On the punt, Pioneer was called for running into the punter. Saline moved up five yards and lined up to punt again. But the snap went over Hammond’s head. He caught up to the ball and punted on the run. Pioneer took over at the Saline 29. Two plays later, Davis scored.
It was the only touchdown of the game.
Saline’s next drive ended with a fumble on the first play. Pioneer had great field possession again, but the Hornet defense held up. A Pioneer field goal attempt was ruined by a bad snap and Saline took over at the Pioneer 49.
On first down, Tyler Palka’s pass to Hammond move the Hornets down to the Pioneer six. On first down, a rush went nowhere. On second down, a pass for Hammond in the end zone nearly worked. On third down, Palka’s keeper gained a couple yards. A fourth down pass was broken up and the Hornets were left with a goose egg on the scoreboard.
The Hornets hoped to pin the Pioneers deep in their territory, but on third and 11, Davis rushed for 12 yards to keep the sticks moving and give Pioneer some breathing room. The Pioneers moved quickly down the field and looked poised to score when Brandon Gordon intercepted a pass at the Saline four just before the end of the first half.
To open the second, Saline pushed into Ann Arbor territory before the drive stalled at the 44. Ann Arbor began its next drive the 28 and went nowhere, thanks to three big tackles by Casey Schukow, who finished the day with 12 tackles, including for five losses.
“We challenged Casey before the game and said we needed him to have a big game. Good players elevate their play for games like this,” Palka said.
Saline began its next possession at its 35 and put together its best drive of the day, using short passes to Hammond, Caleb Luckett and Joey Zakrajsek and keepers from Palka to move down the field. Saline had first-and-goal at the 10. A couple keepers moved it to the five and then Kevin Gross was dropped at the line of scrimmage. After an encroachment penalty, Hammond kicked a short field goal to make it 7-3.
Pioneer’s next possession ended quickly with Caleb Ashby (9 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, one interception), jumping up and picking off a pass. He returned it about 28 yards to the Pioneer 12. Pioneer sacked Palka on first down. Two passes were broken up and Hammond kicked a 27-yard field goal to make it 7-6 with 11:19 to play.
Pioneer’s next drive came to an abrupt halt on when Brandon Gordon picked off a dangerous looking half-back pass at the Saline 23.
“Our defensive backs are recognizing when they can jump up and go after the ball. They’re really competing for the ball,” Palka said.
But the Hornets’ offense couldn’t move, and Saline punted the ball away. Saline’s defense came up with another stop to get the Hornets the ball back at the Saline 15. After moving out to near midfield, the drive ended with an interception.
The Hornets travel to Bedford (3-1 overall, 2-0 in the SEC) Friday.
“I told the team that everything we want is still in front of us. The playoffs and everything, that’s still there for us if we work hard and take care of business,” Palka said.
“This was a tough loss. It’s a game of inches that can go either way. We easily could have won this game. Now we move forward and think nothing of this game,” Hammond said.
Bedford beat Chelsea 53-20 last week and downed Ann Arbor Huron 42-14 Friday.