Saline defeated Ann Arbor Pioneer, 56-13, to streak to its seventh straight win and complete a perfect 5-0 season in the SEC Red.
Sophomore QB Larry Robinson is growing up awfully fast for the Hornets. Just two weeks after playing his first game behind center, Robinson ran for three touchdowns and threw touchdown passes to Cade Gilless and Luke Darmos (twice). The Hornets special teams providing scintillating returns, with Kolton Malinczak returning a punt for a touchdown and Caden Winston returning a kickoff return for a touchdown.
And if that weren’t enough, the Saline second and third defensive stringers ended the game with a fourth-down goal-line stand. It’s that kind of top-to-bottom execution that has once again set the Hornets above all in the SEC Red.
It’s Saline’s seventh SEC Red title in eight years and their sixth straight conference title. It’s the kind of legacy players feel pressure to uphold. But judging by the way Hornets celebrated with trophy selfies after the game, these Hornets had no trouble enjoying their moment.
“What we told the kids before the game was, we don’t care about the last six years. We don’t care about any of that. What we care about is tonight, and this year, with these guys,” Saline head coach Joe Palka said. “What an accomplishment for them -- fighting through injuries, losing (Alex) Morrison, we’ve been playing a lot of young players and our seniors have held tight and held together. So at the end of the day, we don’t care about the six years. We care about this year, with this team. They did it in a special way.”
It took the Hornets less than three minutes to light up the scoreboard. Robinson, who last week ran for a 99-yard touchdown, broke free for a 60-yard score.
Saline's defense forced a punt. Kolton Malinczak fielded the ball at the Saline 35. He started to his right, cut back to the middle, then zigged and zagged again - finally bouncing outside and outracing everyone into the end zone.
With less than two minutes in the quarter, the Pioneers scored when Conor Easthope threw a short TD pass to Ali Fisher. The kick was no good and Saline led 14-6. But Saline immediately added to their lead. Caden Winston returned the ensuing kickoff return 75 yards for a touchdown. Winston fielded the kickoff on one hop and then found space in the center of the field. He swerved through the center before bouncing out to the Pioneer sideline. He was nearly untouched, surviving a last-ditch shoestring tackle attempt before sprinting home for six. Saline led 21-6.
Three big plays - two on special teams - gave the Hornets a huge early lead on a Pioneer team that hadn't beat Saline since 2012.
"Special teams set the tone. We had huge special teams play in the first half. I think that kind of ignited us a little bit," Palka said. "The other thing is, we challenged the kids to play physically, and I thought they did that in all three phases, including special teams."
Early in the second quarter the Hornets expanded their lead on a one-yard touchdown run by Robinson.
On their next position, the Hornets scored by going to the air, a 45-yard strike from Robinson to Luke Darmos.
As fast as the Hornets were scoring, the defense was their equal when it came to getting the ball back. And when Saline got the ball back the next time, Robinson scored on a 55-yard rush up the gut. Saline led 42-6.
The Hornets weren't done yet. Saline capped its last drive of the half with Robinson passing to Cade Gilless along the Saline sideline. Gilless caught the ball around the 15, sidestepped the first Pioneer, juked the second, and then carried three Pioneers over the goal line for a 38-yard scoring play. Saline led 49-6.
Pioneer scored on its first possession of the second half on a 5-yard pass from Easthope to Fisher.
Saline bounced. Josh Roush, a recent sophomore call-up, gave the Hornets great field position with a terrific kickoff return. Two plays later, Robinson through to Darmos for a four-yard touchdown catch.