Heroes don’t come much more unlikely than sophomore JT Turner, who entered the game and kicked a game-winning field goal with 1:07 to play in Saline’s 24-21 victory over Skyline.
Saline (3-0, 1-0 SEC Red) had squandered a 21-7 late in the game and allowed the Skyline (0-3, 0-1 SEC Red) to tie the score. Saline put together a late drive, propelled by Skyline penalties, and wound up with a 4th-and-goal at the Skyline three yard line. Saline coach Joe Palka called timeout. His regular kicker, Vinnie Patteri, was struggling with a hip issue. Palka decided to go with his untested sophomore in a crucial situation.
“The decision’s easy. It’s fourth down and we needed points. The other part is that he’s kicked well in practice,” Palka said. “We had all the confidence in the world in him.”
After a pep talk from teammates, Turner went out and booted a 20-yard field goal through the uprights.
“I basically just said to myself just kick it like you did in practice. You’ve done it so many times already,” Turner said.
Turner said he didn’t even see the ball sail through the uprights.
“I just heard the crowd and I knew it went in,” Turner said.
He was mobbed by his teammates.
The Hornet defense held Skyline in check on the Eagles’ next possession and Saline celebrated victory.
It wasn’t a pretty win. The Hornets turned the ball over twice, had a touchdown called back on a holding penalty, missed a field goal, and blew red zone possession with a bad snap that helped the Eagles get the ball back on their game-tying drive. But it was a win.
“Skyline’s got a good football team. They’re talented. They’re big. They’re strong,” Palka said. “But at the end of the day we always say you’ve just got to win by one point. I was really proud that with all the adversity we faced and momentum against us, when it didn’t seem like anything would go our way, we came down and made plays on offense, special teams and our defense held up.”
As a result, Saline heads into next week’s game against a rejuvenated Bedford team with both teams sporting 3-0 records.
“We’ll go into that game with some confidence, having won this game. But this game showed us we’ve got a lot to work on,” Palka said. “It’s nice when you’re able to win and realize you’ve got a lot to work on.”
Friday’s game wasn’t like most Saline games. Typically, the Hornets weather early storms and then take over as the game goes on. Instead, the Hornets opened strong and it was the Eagles who got stronger as the game went on.
The Hornet defense kept the Eagles off-balance early. The Eagles gained first downs on their first drive before petering out. On 4th-and-10, Darryn Davis’s pass for Hunter Rison fell incomplete.
The Hornets took over at their own 40. Connor Hibbard (15 carries, 63 yards, 2 touchdowns) rushed the ball seven times during a hard, physical 3-play drive.
He finished the drive by fighting his way through a pile for a 3-yard rushing touchdown. Patteri’s kick gave Saline a 7-0 with 2:40 to play in the quarter.
“Nothing was easy in the running game. They loaded the box and those linebackers blitzed and caused us some problems. We had some things going in the running game but they were tough, physical yards,” Palka said.
Skyline’s next drive started at their 25. After moving the chains a bad snap and false-start penalty sent the Eagles back to their 18. On 3rd-and-long, Justice Moss nearly chased down Davis for a sack.
Davis hurried his throw and put right in the breadbasket of Saline linebacker Tyler Plocki, who caught the ball and returned it to the Skyline 23. On the first play of the second quarter Hibbard rushed 12 yards to the Skyline eight. On the next play, Hibbard rushed in for a touchdown, but it was called back for holding. The drive stalled and Saline settled for a field-goal attempt. Patteri’s kick was high and long, but just wide.
Skyline took over at their 20. A false start penalty sent the Eagles backward. A few plays later the Eagles punted from their 17. Andrew Diuble returned the ball to the Saline 49. On first down, QB Zach Schwartzenberger (13-for-18, 175 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) was dropped for a loss. Saline punted for the first time of the season. The Eagles took over at their 12.
Two plays later, Philip Barnett stripped the ball from a Skyline receiver. Tom Raupp fell on the loose ball. Saline took over at the Skyline 23.
On first down, Schwartzenberger gained 14 yards with a pass to Emmett Turner (3 catches, 33 yards).
Two plays later Hibbard rushed up the middle untouched for a nine-yard touchdown. Patteri’s kick was good. Saline led 14-0 with 5:40 to play in the half.
Despite Sean O’Keefe dropping Davis for a seven-yard loss on the first play of the next Skyline possession, the Eagles finally put a drive together. Davis kept the drive going on 3rd-and-17 by fleeing the pocked to elute the rush and then passing to Domnick Franklin for 28-yard gain over the middle.
On the next play, Davis through to Rison, who was covered by two Hornets. Rison leaped and tipped the ball and then caught it was he fell down.
“That’s just a great play. You’ve got to give him credit,” Palka said.
Saline led 14-7.
Diuble’s 40-yard kickoff return gave the Hornets a chance to score before half.
Schwartzenberger lofted a pass into the end zone for Bryce Wolma, who leaped and seemed to catch it. But as Wolma and Franklin tumbled to the ground, Franklin stole the ball from him.
Saline’s first drive of the second half ended with a punt. On the next Skyline possession, CJ Gildersleeve appeared to intercept a Davis pass, but the play overturned because of a penalty. Still the Hornets forced a punt on 4th-and-27.
Saline was poised to add to their lead with possession at the Skyline 37, but the Hornets fumbled the ball away on the first play. The Hornets allowed the Eagles to get out to midfield. On 3rd-and-9, Ethan Collick chased down Davis. The Eagles punted and Saline took over at their own 32.
On the next play, Zach Schwartzenberger faked the hand off and then dropped back. He found Nate Gresser wide open streaking down the sideline. Gresser didn’t have to break his stride to catch the pass. He raced into the end zone. Saline led 21-7 with 4:03 to play in the third.
The Eagles responded with a nine-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Davis passing to Rison as he split the Hornet coverage. Saline’s lead was cut to 21-14 with 2:14 to play in the third.
Saline’s next drive was fueled rushes by Hibbard and Schwartzenberger and a penalty against the Eagles. On 3rd-and-6 from the 21, a bad snap went over Schwartzenberger’s head and the Hornets lost 19 yards.
The Eagles took over at the 32 with 7:44 to play. With star linebacker CJ Gildersleeve out with an injury, the Eagles running game was suddenly ferocious. Charles Jones rushed twice to move the ball to the Saline 39. Then after a seven yard pickup TreShaun Hayward rumbled 27 yards up the middle to the Saline six. On the next play, Jones rushed in for six. After the kick, the game was tied at 21 with 4:50 to play.
The Hornets didn’t panic. A good return by Diuble set Saline up at the 35. After passes to Turner and Dresser, Schwartzenberger tucked it in for a first down at the 45. On 3rd-and-8, Schwartzenberger passed to Turner on the Skyline sideline for first down near the Skyline 40. Skyline was penalized for a late hit and something else. Saline had the ball at the Skyline 11.
The Hornets weren’t able to gain much on the ground. A 3rd-and-8 pass to Brendan Munday picked up a yard to the Skyline 6. Again, Skyline was penalized for a late hit, setting up the 4th down at the three. JT Turner kicked the field goal to put the Hornets up 24-21.
The Eagles took over at their own 20 with 1:07 to play and no timeouts. Davis picked up nine yards on a keeper and picked up a first down with a pass. But from there the Hornet defense wouldn’t budge.
Mancino’s Pizza & Grinders 3 Stars
- JT Turner – The sophomore came in and made good on his first varsity field goal attempt in a pressure situation.
- CJ Gildersleeve – Led the Hornet with nine tackles. The linebacker also had an interception that was overturned. But if you didn’t noticed GIldersleeve when he was in the game, you sure noticed when he had to come out for an injury. GIldersleeve has become a stalwart of the Hornet defense.
- Connor Hibbard – Rushed for two touchdowns and had another taken back on a holding penalty. Hibbard didn’t pile up a ton of yards, but he rushed for hard yards. He took hard hits and delivered some too. Gutsy effort by a speedy, shifty and small running back who played like a power running back. He’s already rushed for five touchdowns this years.