Saline (6-1, 5-0 SEC Red) won its fourth straight SEC Red football title Friday night, defeating Pioneer 49-7 (3-4, 3-2 SEC Red) to seal its fourth consecutive unbeaten conference schedule.
The league championship was a satisfying accomplishment for a Saline team facing huge expectations and more questions than most Hornet teams. After that opening loss to Rockford at the University of Michigan, a lot of people questioned whether this was the typical Joe Palka juggernaut.
“The chips were against us. We lost the first game. We lost two really good players before the season started with ACL tears. This team has persevered and formed its own legacy,” Palka said. “There’s a lot of pressure on us now. You win all the time, can you do it again? These guys have worked harder than most to get the job done.”
The Hornets were not the least bit fazed by all of the Homecoming hoopla. They charged out of the locker room determined to win control of the contest early. Saline built a 28-0 lead before the game was 10 minutes old and never looked back.
Cole Daniels completed 11-of-14 passes for 147 yards and three touchdowns. Andrew Diuble caught four passes for 61 yards and two touchdowns – and drew fans from their seats with two spin moves that would make any PS4 Madden gamer proud. He also rushed for a touchdown. Brendan Munday rushed seven times for 64 yards and the game’s open touchdown – a 38-yard scamper that seemed to break Pioneer’s spirit just four minutes into the contest.
Palka chalked up the strong start to a great weak of practice and a pre-game challenge.
““We had a great week of practice that was really competitive. We said in the locker room, before we came out, let’s get after it right away. We don’t need to wait until late. Let’s make a physical statement right away. I think our kids really bought into that right away,” Palka said. “It started with the kick into the end zone and our defense did a great job and our offense capitalized.”
Saline refused to underestimate Pioneer.
“Pioneer was playing the best football they’ve played all year. We were concerned about their skill kids. They made some plays. But our defense runs so well that we were able to get their quarterback corralled,” Palka said. “If he gets loose, he can cause problems. We guarded against a mobile quarterback all week and tried to make sure we were in the right spots, coverage-wise, against a good receiver.”
Saline’s defensive ends crushed the Pioneers on the opening possession. On first down, Brad Wisniewski – who has emerged as a force as this season developed – dropped Lael Onifade for a five yard loss. On the next play, Wisniewski sacked Nathan Yuhas for a six yard loss.
A play later, Pioneer punted.
“Brad is so fast. It’s so hard to get outside on him. Our defensive ends have been doing a great job all year. Danny has done a great job, too. It’s hard now if you’re a mobile quarterback because you have guys who can keep up with you,” Palka said.
Saline began at its 36. Munday gained 15 yards on first down. After a false start penalty, Daniels through to Diuble for nine yards. Munday ran again for seven yards.
And then he capped the drive with a long run, showing a great stutter move to evade a Pioneer along the sideline before forcing his way into the end zone. After Vinnie Patteri’s kick, Saline led 7-0.
Patteri’s kick off went into the end zone for another touchback. On first down, CJ Gildersleeve dropped Yuhas for a one-yard loss. On 3rd-and-11, Yuhas scrambled again. Tom Raupp brought him down well short of the marker. Pioneer lined up to punt, but the snap eluded the punter.
At the goal line, he tried to pick it up, but he threw it into the end zone where Tom Raupp fell on the loose ball for a Saline touchdown.
For Pioneer, it was hard to imagine a worse start.
But it got worse. Patteri’s next kick off didn’t go into the end zone. Instead, he used his receiver’s hands to recover his own squib kick. Saline was in business at the Pioneer 33. After Daniels ran 13 yards for a first down, he passed to Diuble near the end zone.
After momentarily bobbling the ball, he had one man to beat. A quick spin left the defender in the dust and Diuble fell into the end zone for six. Patteri’s kick made it 21-0 little more than half way through the first quarter.
Saline’s domination continued on the next possession. Patteri’s kick sailed into the end zone for a touchdown. After Pioneer was penalized for a false start, Wisniewski hit the running back after a botched hand-off, knocking the ball loose.
Somehow, as he was falling with running back, Wisniewski was able to scoop up the ball and maintain control with one hand.
Saline had the ball at the Pioneer 11. Three plays later, Diuble ran the sweep in from six yards out. Saline led 28-0 after JT Turner’s kick.
Pioneer finally showed some of that skill Saline was concerned about on its next drive that stretched into the second quarter. Yuhas passed to Eric Steinhauer, who was wide open at the foot of the end zone, for a 34-yard touchdown. After the kick it was 28-7.
Saline employed some trickery on its next scoring drive. On first down, Daniels handed the ball to J Drew McGovern who passed to Emmett Turner for a 43-yard play over the middle. Daniels then passed to Diuble for eight yards.
Saline capped the drive on the very next play, as Daniels connected with Brendan Murphy for a 35-yard touchdown. Saline led 35-7 after the kick.
Saline maintained until halftime. Saline opened the second half six-play scoring drive, capped by Daniels’ 23-yard TD pass to Andrew Diuble. Saline led 42-7.
Logan Evans quarterbacked a scoring drive later in the third quarter.
Saline had great field position after Weidmayer sacked Yuhas at the Pioneer 15 and Pioneer punted. Saline began at the Pioneer 36. Evans touchdown pass to McGovern was called back due to holding.
On the next play, Hayden Scott showed great speed, running 42 yards before he was taken down at the three yard line. Evans snuck in on the next play. Patteri’s kick made it 49-7.
Saline now turns its attention to Ypsilanti next Friday as the Hornets celebrate senior night.
Ypsilanti is just 2-4, but they hung in tough and lost just 14-7 to a tough Chelsea team Friday.
Palka said the Hornets will be ready.
“It’s a very big game. For one, a win means playoff points. For two, we want to secure home playoff games. For three we’re on a streakiness of undefeated games against SEC opponents, Red and White, we want to maintain that,” Palka said. “Lastly, we want to finish out our last home game for our seniors, on senior night, with a win.”
Mancino’s Pizza & Grinders 3 Stars
- Andrew Diuble – Caught two touchdown passes. Ran for another. Over the last three games, Diuble has been a dynamic playmaker for the Hornets.
- Brad Wisniewski – This guy summons big plays like you could buy them off Amazon with a gift card. Every week, it seems, he’s got a sack, or a tackle for a loss, or a forced fumble or fumble recovery. Friday – he got all of those.
- Tom Raupp – Like his older brother, he’s a pit bull who fights above his weight. And he comes up with big plays. He recovered a fumble in the end zone. He also had a sack. And he helped keep the talented Pioneer QB and receiving corps from doing much damage.