When Wes Doxie kicked a field goal to give Bedford a 24-23 lead with 1:42 to play, Saline junior Vinnie Patteri’s missed extra point in the third quarter suddenly loomed large.
Patteri, who suffered a hip injury and watched teammate JT Turner step in and kick the game-winning field goal last week, wanted a chance for redemption.
“It was a gift from God. I missed my chance last week. To come back and get this chance is unbelievable. I was just glad my team drove me down there, put me on the goal line and gave me an easy shot,” said Patteri. “No words can describe how it feels.”
Patteri’s 22-yard field goal with three seconds left gave Saline a 26-24 lead. Patteri then recovered his own onside kick to prevent Bedford from attempting any last-minute miracle plays.
In the battle of the SEC Red’s two unbeaten teams, Saline improved to 4-0 overall and 2-0 in the SEC Red. Bedford fell to 3-1 overall and 1-1 in the SEC Red.
It was the second straight thriller at Hornet Stadium, where about 6,000 people were on hand for the big game. The Mules were one play away from victory.
After Doxie’s field goal, the Hornets took over at their 20. A holding penalty pushed Saline back 10 yards. It took Saline three plays to get those yards back. The Hornets faced a 4th-and-10 at their own 20 with a little more than a minute to play.
QB Zach Schwartzenberger (16-for-21, 241 yards, 2 TDs) dropped back to pass and saw Bryce Wolma (8 catches, 107 yards, 1 TD) double covered and Andrew Diuble (5 catches 66 yards) wide open. Schwartzenberger hit Diuble, who made several Mules miss and gained about 25 yards after the catch.
“Bryce was playing great all night. They keyed on Bryce. Diuble was wide open. He made a great catch, made guys miss and made a great play,” Schwartzenberger said.
Suddenly the Hornets were in business at the Bedford 36.
On the next play, Schwartzenberger (11 rushes, 73 yards) picked up 15 yards on a keeper.
With the clock ticking down toward zero, the Hornets continued to attack on the ground. On 3rd-and-4 from the 15, Connor Hibbard (20 carries, 133 yards, 1 TD, 2 catches, 56 yards 1 TD) bashed his way down to the five for a first down.
The officials assessed Bedford a penalty for facemasking, moving the ball down to the two yard line.
From there, Patteri took over.
The final drive capped a great football game. Saline coach Joe Palka said his team learned lessons in resiliency last week against Skyline.
“I told the team before the game that they really grew last week when everyone in the stadium thought we were going to lose and the chips were down and they had an answer. I knew they were going to keep coming back today. But it’s one thing to have faith. It’s another to see it actually happen,” Palka said.
The Hornets were much improved. Star seniors on offense like Hibbard, Schwarzenberger and Wolma each had their best game of the season. Saline avoided turnovers and cut down on costly penalties and mistakes. Defensively, after struggling to contain Joey Wiemer and the Mules’ rushing attack on their first possession, the Saline defense was strong.
Win or lose, Palka was confident his team was going to play a strong game this week.
“Going into the game today I thought that even if we didn’t win, I liked the progress we were making. If we continue to fight and battle I think this team has a chance to be like some of our other teams. We should keep getting better as the season goes on,” Palka said. “We gained some defensive confidence tonight as well in critical spots.”
On the first possession of the game, Saline went 70 yards with short passes and tough rushes. Saline pushed the ball all the way down to the seven before the Mules pushed them back to the 10. From there, Patteri kicked a field goal for a 3-0 lead.
Bedford answered immediately. The Hornets had trouble spotted QB Joey Wiemer’s fake hand-offs. On one fake, Wiemer pitched to Brady Nowak who went 33 yards to the Saline 31. On the next play, Wiemer faked the hand off to Joey Oehlers and bounced to the outside for a 31-yard touchdown run. Bedford led 7-3 with 5:45 to play in the first quarter.
Saline’s offense replied with an 80-yard touchdown drive. Schwartzenberger passed to Diuble for 11 yards to start the drive. Hibbard followed with a 10-yard rush. Saline got out to midfield. On 3rd-and-4, Schwartzenberger passed to Wolma to keep the chains moving. Hibbard followed with rushes of 12, seven and five yards. On 3rd-and-2 from the 8, Schwartzenberger faked the hand off and then passed to a wide-open Wolma in the end zone.
Wolma made the catch, Patteri kicked the extra point and Saline led 10-7 with 1:55 to play in the first quarter.
Palka said Schwartzenberger was in the zone.
“He was really in a rhythm. We’ve seen him improve week by week. And this last week in practice he wasn’t missing. Even in pre-game, he wasn’t missing,” Palka said. “We knew he’d throw the ball well. It’s a credit to him for getting his timing down.”
Schwartzenberger said the team did a better job getting results on its drives.
“This week we finished. Last week we were clicking and clicking but then we’d get down to the red zone area and not finish. We had a great week in practice and moved the ball well in practice and played well in the game,” Schwartzenberger said.
On the next drive, the Mules went 63 yards on the first eight plays, setting up a 3rd-and-goal from the two. That’s where the Hornets built their wall. First Ethan Collick and Nathan Powers stopped Joey Oehlers for a one-yard gain.
On 4th-and-goal from the one, Powers stopped Oehlers for no gain.
“The guard blocked down on me. I had to strike my block. I depended on my linebackers to fill the gap. I struck my block and sat in the B gap. I saw the running back came right at me. I just lowered my shoulder, I just drove my feet and I made that goal line stand,” Powers said.
Palka said it was a major turning point in the game.
On the next play, Schwartzenberger passed to Wolma, who was streaking down the Bedford sideline. Wolma made a leaping catch for a 35-yard gain. The rest of the drive, Schwartzenberger and Hibbard took turns rushing the football.
Hibbard finished the drive with an eight-yard touchdown run. Patteri’s kick gave Saline a 17-7 lead.
The Mules got the ball back and went 80 yards on nine plays. Weimer converted a 3rd-and-10 with a 15-yard keeper early in the drive. Then he converted a 3rd-and-7 with 23 yard pass to Carson Barr. Weimer picked up another 19 yards on the ground before Oehlers scored on a 21-yard rush. Saline’s lead was 17-14.
Hibbard sent Saline fans into a frenzy when he returned the kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. The play was called back for an illegal block. The Hornets led 17-14 at halftime.
Saline nearly had the Mules stopped on their first possession of the third quarter. On 4th-and-1, Oehlers pushed his way past the marker for a first down at the Saline 43. On the next play, Wiemer passed to David Jeffers, who made a leaping catch over the Saline defender and then ran into the end zone. Bedford led 21-17.
The Hornets were determined to answer on their next drive. With a couple of passes to Wolma and runs by Schwartzenberger and Hibbard, Saline moved the ball 29 yards to its 49. On first down, Nate Gresser just missed pulling in a long pass along the Saline sideline despite great coverage by the Bedford defensive back. On the next play, Emmett Turner beat his man up the middle but had the ball slip through his outstretched fingertips.
The Hornets weren’t discouraged, though.
On 3rd-and-10, Schwartzenberger dumped a short pass off to Hibbard and let his running back take care of the rest. Hibbard burst to the Bedford sideline and outraced everyone to the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown reception. Patteri’s kick was wide. Saline led 23-21 with 4:42 to play.
Saline’s defense prevented the Mules from answering on their next possession. Sean O’Keefe and CJ Gildersleeve made important tackles to prevent the Mules from progressing. On 4th-and-11, the Mules punted. The line-drive punt rolled down to the Saline 22.
Saline couldn’t do anything with the possession and they punted from their 23.
Bedford took over at its 39 with 10:21 to play. The Mules put together a classic Bedford drive. Weimer and Ohelers pushed the ball down the field with one yard here, three yards there, four yards there. Early in the drive Oehlers rushed for two yards on 4th-and-1. A little later, on 4th-and-5, Wiemer passed to Jeffers for a first down at the Saline 12.
The Mules gained a yard on first down. On second down, Gildersleeve stopped Wiemer after he gained a yard. On third down, Weimer scrambled out of danger behind the line of scrimmage and rushed down to the four. Doxie kicked a field goal and the Mules led 24-23.
The Hornets were exalted after their dramatic victory over their rivals.
“Oh this is big, just like last week. It was a big team win,” Schwartzenberger said. “It’s always a little extra special to beat Bedford. It’s a big rivalry and always a good team, always a good game. It makes it a little sweeter.”
Mancino’s Pizza & Grinders 3 Stars
- Connor Hibbard - At times, Hibbard wore his Barry Sanders shoes, dancing through holes created by his line. Other times, he just pounded the ball through the Mules. It’s hard to quantify how much his touchdown reception meant after those two near misses. Instead of getting down or frustrated, Hibbard just got it done. His kick-off return, though called back, was also important to see. It was the first time the Hornets have seen the big-play return this season.
- Zach Schwartzenberger – At times Schwartzenberger and his receivers looked out of sync in the Skyline game. But Schwartzenberger and his receivers were dialed in against Bedford. Schwartzenberger was finally able to take advantage of 6’5 Wolma, who had a monster game in his own right. And then instead of forcing the 4th-and-10 play to Wolma in coverage, Schwartzenberger found the open Diuble and delivered the perfect pass. Schwartzenberger also had his best day rushing the football. His 15-yard keeper during game-winning drive was critical.
- Bryce Wolma – Sometimes you wish you had more than three stars to give, right? Vinnie Patteri. CJ Gildersleeve. Nathan Powers. Ethan Collick. Tyler Plocki. Sean O’Keefe. So many Hornets contributed to the win. But the Hornets finally found a way to get the ball to Bryce Wolma and he had a huge day with eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. His best catch, and maybe most important catch, came after Saline’s big defensive stop on their goal line. The Mules wanted to pin the Hornets deep in their own territory, but Schwartzenberger and Wolma blew them up for 35 yards on first down and the Hornets went on to score.