Connor Hibbard rushed for four touchdowns and defensive lineman Nathan Powers had an interception recovered fumble and two sacks as Saline crushed Belleville 38-7 to open the Hornets’ playoff football season.
Saline hosts Canton at 7 p.m. Friday in the district championship game.
The Hornets were strong on both sides of the ball. On defense, where the motto has been bend-don’t-break, the Hornets no longer seem interested in bending.
Saline head coach Joe Palka said his defense set the tone.
“Our defense has been playing very well and with a lot of confidence. I really never felt anything was in question today with the way our defense was playing,” Palka said. “I’m really proud of those guys. Our D line has been getting better all year. Our linebackers and secondary improve. The defense delivered the win for us tonight.”
Which, of course, is not to take anything away from an offense that piled up 38 points against a team that hadn’t given up more than 14 points since week three.
Offensively, it was mostly the Connor Hibbard show. Sometimes speedy, sometimes shifty, and often just plain old tough, Hibbard ran 22 times for 171 yards and four touchdowns. Sometimes, Hibbard is taking advantages of holes created by his line. But as Palka noted, sometimes, he’s making plays out of nothing.
“We had plays where they beat us at the point of attack and Connor made them miss. He’s just a phenomenal player. We’re lucky to have him,” Palka said. “It’s amazing how underrated he is. It’s not like he’s a secret. He did all this last year. He has a great combination of balance, speed and toughness.”
The game opened with Saline kicking off to Belleville, who started at their own 24. On 3rd-and-7, Matthew Ransome passed to Jahz Watts, but Phillip Barnett dragged him down before he reached the first down marker. Belleville punted. The Hornets weren’t in synch on their first possession. Saline started at their own 34 and went backwards three times on three plays. Vinnie Patteri launched a 56-yard punt that stopped rolling at the Belleville 14. Dylan Powers Towers made two tackles and Tyler Plocki another on another 3-and-out. After a punt, Saline started at the Tigers’ 45.
On first down QB Zach Schwartzenberger dumped a short pass off to Hibbard who ran to the Belleville 11 where he was tackled. On the next play, Hibbard rushed in for the touchdown. JT Turner’s kick gave Saline a 7-0 lead 5:34 into the game.
After Patteri’s kickoff for a touchback, Belleville started at their 20. Belleville moved the chains for the first time on a couple runs by Jahmil Taylor. On the next first down, Tyler Plocki dropped Ransome for a one-yard sack. CJ Gildersleeve stopped Taylor after a five-yard pickup.
On the next play, Ransom tried to pass over the middle. Tyler Plocki got his hand on the ball to knock it down and Nathan Powers caught it before it hit the ground. Saline took over at the Belleville 31.
“Nathan is just a great inside player. You can tell that wrestling experience has helped him. He’s been a key cog on the D Line,” Palka said.
A penalty and an 11-yard run by Hibbard gave Saline a first down at the Belleville 11. But the Tigers’ defense stopped the Hornets, who settled for JT Turner’s field goal. Saline led 10-0 7:34 into the quarter.
The Tigers pushed out to their 40 on their next drive. On 3rd-and-8, Powers dropped Ransome for a four-yard loss. Belleville punted and the Hornets took over at their own 20. On 3rd-and-12, Schwartzenberger passed to Emmett Turner on the Belleville sideline to move the chains. Schwartzenberger escaped a sack, but not before a facemasking penalty moved Saline out to the Belleville 48. On 3rd-and-3, Schwartzenberger ran 19 yards to the Belleville 22. Schwartzenberger passed to Turner for another first down at the Belleville nine.
On the next play, Hibbard ran up the middle, carrying a Tiger for the last 5 yards before crossing the goal-line. After Turner’s kick, Saline led 17-0 with 7:01 to play in the half.
The Tigers’ next drive pushed from the 30 to the 45 with a pass interference penalty on Saline. But that was all the Hornets gave up. Two penalties for illegal blocks pushed the Tigers back to their 42. The Tigers punted the ball away.
The Hornets started at their own 15 and went 81 yards.
Along the way, Bryce Wolma made a beautiful one-handed catch on a tipped pass for a 22-yard-pick up.
Connor Hibbard also had a sensational 41-yard pickup brought back for holding. Still the Hornets pushed their way down to the Belleville 5. On 4th-and-2, the Tigers stopped Hibbard and took over on downs. With 1:39 on the clock the Tigers moved quickly up the field. But at the Saline 35, the drive stalled. Ethan Collick dropped Ransome for no gain on first down.
Two incomplete passes later, Jeremiah Leyden picked off Ransome’s pass. The Hornets took over at their 42 with 24 seconds left in the half.
A pass to Wolma and penalty moved Saline to the Belleville 44. On the last play of the half, Schwartzenberger scrambled away from the pressure and threw one into the end zone, where Turner made a leaping catch. But Schwartzenberger was called for passing beyond the line of scrimmage. Saline went into halftime with a 17-0 lead.
The Tiger defense was stingy to start the second half. A holding penalty didn’t help matters. Schwartzenberger was sacked on 3rd-and-9 so the Hornets punted from the 16.
Belleville took over at the Saline 48 with their best field possession of the game. On first down, Devonni Reed picked up five yards before Nathan Powers brought him down. On second down, Justice Moss brought down Reed for no gain. On 3rd down, Ransome ran it himself and he was stopped by CJ Gildersleeve three yards short of the marker. On fourth down, Gildersleeve and Plocki stopped Reed a yard short of the marker. Saline took over at its own 39. On second down, Schwartzenberger passed to Turner for a 20-yard gain.
On the next play, Hibbard ran a sweep to the sideline and went 39 yards to the Belleville three. Two plays later, Hibbard rushed in from three yards out. Turner’s kick made it 24-0 midway through the quarter.
Belleville’s next possession was a three-and-out, highlighted by Nathan Powers sacking Ransome for a three-yard loss on second down.
Saline took over but couldn’t move the ball. Another good punt by Patteri forced the Tigers to start at their own 15. Ransome completed passes of 15, 6 and 24 yards to move the Tigers into Saline territory.
On third-and-10 from Saline’s 40, the Hornets jarred the ball loose. Nathan Powers was there to pick it up. Saline started at its own 38. An 11-yard pass to Emmett Turner moved the chains before the end of the quarter.
A 30-yard dash by Hibbard gave Saline a first down at the Belleville 6. Hibbard rushed again for three yards and another penalty against the Tigers cut the distance to the goal line in half.
On the next play, Hibbard scored from one-yard out with a sweep toward the Belleville skyline.
Saline led 31-0 after Turner’s kick.
Belleville answered with a 60-yard drive capped by Ransome’s 10-yard pass to Khaild Crawford.
Brendan Munday added a late 18-yard touchdown for Saline.
Now the Hornets face a Canton team that has won eight straight games since opening the season with two losses. Saline has faced Canton twice in two years, defeating the Chiefs in 2014 on their way to Ford Field, and falling to Canton in last year’s regional game.
“We knew this was going to be a tough road when we saw our draw. But we can only take it one week at a time,” Palka said.
Palka expects a good football team, but he doesn’t know much about this year’s Chiefs at this point.
“We know they’re good, but we haven’t seen them and the teams they’re playing against. We haven’t seen them in a year and they have seen us in a year,” Palka said. “I like that we have them at home. I challenged our team and coaches to dig down a little deeper and let’s find a way.”
Mancino’s Pizza 3 Stars
- Connor Hibbard – Saline’s senior RB is doing it all right now. Against a tough defense fighting for its season, Hibbard posted a season high 171-yards. He also rushed for four touchdowns for the second time in three weeks. He’s scored 17 touchdowns in five games and 26 on the second.
- Nathan Powers – Whenever there was a big play on defense, it seemed to involve the senior defensive lineman. He had an interception, a fumble recovery and two sacks. His emergence is one of the reason why the Hornet D has improved so much.
- Tyler Plocki – Plocki and fellow linebacker CJ Gildersleeve each had eight tackles. Plocki also sacked the QB tice, deflected a pass that was intercepted, and forced a fumble.
||#20 Connor Hibbard runs for 11 yards. Touchdown! (Point after kick by #46 JT Turner good)
||25 yard field goal attempt by #46 JT Turner. Good!
||#20 Connor Hibbard runs for 9 yards. Touchdown! Penalty: defensive illegal substitution for 5 yards. Penalty declined. (Point after kick by #46 JT Turner good)
||#20 Connor Hibbard runs for 3 yards. Touchdown! (Point after kick by #46 JT Turner good)
||#20 Connor Hibbard runs for 1 yards. Touchdown! (Point after kick by #46 JT Turner good)
||#7 Matthew Ransome pass complete to #8 Khalid Crawford for 10 yards. Touchdown! (Point after kick by #88 Chase Bongiorno good)
||#25 Brendan Munday runs for 18 yards. Touchdown! (Point after kick by #46 JT Turner good)
|Number of Plays
|Time of Possession
|Rushing Attempts - Yards
||29 - 91
||42 - 260
|Passing: Completions - Attempts
||14 - 34
||13 - 20
|Passing: Touchdowns - Interceptions
||1 - 2
||0 - 0
|Fumbles - Lost
||1 - 1
||0 - 0
|First Downs - Rushing
|First Downs - Passing
|First Downs - Penalties
|Third Down Conversions/Attempts
|Fourth Down Conversions/Attempts
|Penalties - Yards
||10 - 80
||7 - 80
|Defensive Sacks - Yards
||0 - 0
||6 - 31
|Punts - Average
||5 - 36.8
||4 - 37.8