Saline stampeded to a 49-0 victory over Monroe at Hornet Stadium Friday night.
A Hornet goal-line stand kept Monroe off the board on the game's first possession. And then, led by 70 yards rushing by Griffin Wooley, Saline went 99 yards in seven plays and scored on Wooley's rushing touchdown.
The Hornets (5-1 overall, 3-1 SEC Red) inched closer to a playoff spot for the second consecutive year.
“It feels great. It's good to get another win and good to be that much closer to the playoffs,” said John Smutny, the senior co-captain who plays defensive end.
Coach Joe Palka said he liked the way his team answered challenges as the Hornets rebounded from just their second regular season loss in two years.
“We had a great goal line stand and then we had a 99-yard drive. It really showed some resiliency,” Palka said.
There weren't many sequences where Saline didn't look in complete control of the game. One of those was on the game's opening play, when Saline attempted an onside kick that Monroe picked up at the Saline 48 yard line.
Monroe moved up the field on a sideline pass to Stephen Blunt and a big gain by Dathan Dickerson on a draw. An 11-yard run by Blunt gave Monroe a first down at the Saline 5. On first down, Dickerson pushed the Trojans to the 2. On the Hornets stopped Dickerson at the one. On the next two plays, Saline stuffed QB Corey Goodloe as he tried to lean into the end zone.
It was a huge stop for a defense that couldn't corral the Kicking Mules last week.
“Our defensive motto is bend don't break. They might be able to get close to the goal line, but there's still one yard to go,” Smutny said. “Ben Elliot and Brandon Baldus, our two defensive tackles, really proved they can't just quarterback sneak it up the middle. The filled it up really well.”
Palka said he thought his team responded well after a tough game against Bedford.
“I think our defense is forming a chip on its shoulder all the time, especially after not playing as well last week,” Palka said.
Saline took over at the one. Wooley rushed for seven yards to give the team some breathing room. QB Trent Theisen tossed a short pass to Brad McCormick, who gained about 13 yards after the catch and moved the Hornets out to the 26.
Wooley then broke loose for a 30-yard run. He followed it up a 16-yard rush and an eight-yard run. Theisen passed to McCormick on a slant and the Hornets had the ball at the eight. Wooley ran in from 8 yards out. Ryan Tice's kick made it 7-0 with 4:28 to play.
Wooley finished the game with 114 yards on 13 carries. He rushed for two touchdowns (8 and 28 yards) and caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Travis Brown in the third quarter.
Palka was pleased by the performance of Wooley and the offensive line.
“It was nice to see them coming off the football and block the plays we run successfully. We got our wheels underneath us this week,” Palka said. “Griffin was a different kid in practice this week. He had a sense of urgency and it was time for him to have a breakout game and I thought he did.”
Wooley he was fueled by the sting of last week's loss.
“I was salty about the loss to Bedford and I was ready to get to work on Monroe. So I was coming with a little bit of anger,” Wooley said.
When the 99-yard drive began, Wooley looked down the long field and saw an opportunity.
“I was really excited. You don't get the opportunity to have a 99-yard all the time,” Wooley said. “Once we started, the offensive line was creating massive holes and I was just running hard.”
The opening 7:32 of the game set the tone for the entire game.
Smutny said the defense got a lift seeing team plow 99 yards – mostly on the ground.
“It was great. It was a boost for our team. Whenever you can run the ball you can control the game,” Smutny said.
Near the end of the first quarter, took over at the 22 and moved the ball efficiently up the field. Saline's defense enforced its “bend, don't break” again, as the defense stopped Monroe again on 4th-and-1 at the 16.
The Hornet offense once again responded to the big stop by the defense. Jeb Palka (10 carries, 69 yards, one touchdown) helped drive the Hornets on an 84-yard scoring drive that finished with a 12-yard keeper by Theisen. Tice's kick made it 14-0 with 4:43 left in the half.
The Saline defense gave Monroe nothing on the Trojans' next possession, Monroe punted from the 40.
And then it was time for the Nader El Awar show. El Awar caught the ball near his own 20 while running toward his goal line.
“They kicked it about five yards longer than I expected, so I just backed up, caught it and reacted to what I saw,” El Awar said.
With El-Awar's reputation growing around the league, defenses are paying more attention to him.
“Teams are going to try to take him away. They're going to double him. But he still finds a way to make his imprint on the game,” Palka said.
Saline got the ball right back when a Trojan fumbled the kickoff. Saline took over at the Monroe 26 but couldn't move the football. A field goal attempt by Tice was just wide.
A week after Saline had Bedford down and couldn't put the Mules away by punching it in from the red zone, Palka wasn't pleased. And for a moment early in the second half, Monroe looked like they might get life. The Trojans recovered an onside kick in Saline territory.
But on first down, Stephen Slattery put an end to any thoughts of a Monroe comeback. With the Hornets chasing Goodloe, Slattery picked off his pass. Saline took over at the 47. Four plays later, Wooley scored on a 28-yard rush, dragging a half dozen Trojans over the goal line with him. Tice's kick made it 28-0.
Slattery preserved the shutout on the next possession. Blunt broke loose for a long run and Slattery brought him down from behind to prevent a touchdown. Monroe turned the ball over on downs at the Saline 16.
Travis Brown (3 rushes, 75 yards, 3-for-3 passing, 39 yards) subbed in for Theisen at QB. He and Palka moved the ball down field on the ground, mostly. The 84-yard drive ended with Brown passing to Wooley for a 25-yard touchdown. Saline led 35-0 after Tice's kick. Early in the fourth, Palka rushed in for six points.
Quinton Vidaurri capped the scoring by recovering a fumble and then racing 37 yards for the touchdown.
Saline rushed for over 300 yards a week after using the passing game to try and beat the Mules.
“We made it a point to try to get the running game on track,” Palka said. “We still wanted to throw the ball but the tuning game was more a point of emphasis for our O line and running backs. And they did a great job.”
The Hornets took three out of four games to open a tough SEC Red schedule, defeating Chelsea, Pioneer and Monroe while losing to Bedford.
“If you would have told me at the start of the year we'd go 3-1 against those four teams I would have been pretty happy. However, I'm greedy,” Palka said. “But realistically, we have a lot of juniors and a lot of kids who are starting for the first time this year. So at this point I am happy with our progress.”
El-Awar said it was good to get back to winning ways.
“We got that bad taste of our mouth,” El-Awar said.
Tyrone Miller led the defense with 11 tackles. He also recovered a fumble. John Smutny made seven tackles. Vidaurri also made five tackles and recovered a fumble for a touchdown. Chris Terech and Stephen Slattery each made five tackles.