Senior Connor Hibbard scored three touchdowns and a defensive goal line stand fueled Saline in a 20-9 victory on a soggy night at Pioneer.
Saline improved to 6-0 overall and 4-0 in the SEC Red. The Hornets clinched at least a share of the SEC Red conference championship. Saline can clinch its third straight unbeaten season if they defeat Monroe at next week’s Homecoming game. Saline also clinched a playoff spot for the fifth straight year.
A game that started with each team scoring on its first possession ended in a defensive battle – one the Hornets won in the end. Saline thwarted two drives with goal line stands. The first, at the end of the second half, ended with a field goal and prevented the Pioneers from tying the game at halftime.
The second, which came with Saline up 13-9 in the third quarter, left the Pioneers with no points after marching 66 yards in an eight-minute drive that ate most of the third quarter. On 2nd-and-goal from the 2, the Hornets topped Dexter Ferrel. On 3rd down from the 1, a gang of Hornets stopped Antjuan Simmons. On 4th down from just outside the 1, the Hornets stopped Simmons again.
“We know we are little outmatched at times with bigger running backs and they had all three backs in the backfield. But we didn’t give up. And to have that goal-line stop really won the game for us in my opinion,” Saline coach Joe Palka said. “I’m really proud of our defensive effort throughout the second half. We knew we were going to bend a little bit, but that goal line stand was critical.”
Saline struck early. On the second play from scrimmage Connor Hibbard caught a screen pass from QB Zach Schwartzenberger and went 52 yards for the touchdown. It was the first of Hibbard’s three touchdowns. Vinnie Patteri’s extra-point kick was blocked.
Pioneer responded with an 80-yard scoring drive, mostly on the ground. Simmons had two big gains on the drive before Ferrel punched it in from a yard out. The Hornets blocked the extra point and the game was tied at 6.
The game remained tied until Saline’s first possession of the second quarter. Saline started at their own 36. Emmett Turner made a leaping catch and spun around to pick up a first down. Then Hibbard moved the ball over midfield with a series of runs. The drive seemed like it was going to stall at midfield.
On 4th-and-1, the Hornets went for it. Hibbard took the hand off, found a hole and went 36 yards for a first down at the Pioneer 7.
Two plays later Hibbard dove in from the one. JT Turner’s kick was good and Saline led 13-6 with 8:29 to play in the quarter.
Pioneer began their next possession at the Saline 20. The Pioneers kept the chains moving early with two third-and-long conversions. On 2nd-and-10, one sequence after nearly being sacked by Sean O’Keefe and throwing an interception, QB Nate Yuhas escaped pressure and ran for 20 yards for a first down at the Saline 26. The Pioneers moved the chains again, converting a 4th-and-3. On 3rd-and-8, Simmons caught a pass and juked a Hornet being dragged down by CJ Gildersleeve and Robbie Felton at the one.
The Hornets stopped the run on first down. Robbie Felton broke up a pass intended for Simmons in the end zone on second down with three seconds left. The Pioneers settled for a field goal.
Saline led 13-9 at halftime.
The second half began in a heavy mist. The Hornets kicked off to the Pioneers and forced a three-and-out. Saline took over at its 37 but moved only two yards in three plays before Patteri punted. The Pioneers started at their 34. Simmons carried the ball several times to move the ball into Saline territory. A couple of runs by Ferrel gave Pioneer another first at the Saline 23. Two plays later, Simmons rushed 11 yards for a first down at the Saline 8.
On first down, Simmons rushed to the two. On second down, the Hornet defense, including Gildersleeve and Jeremiah Leyden, stopped Ferrel after a one-yard defense.
Pioneer went back to Simmons on third down from the one, and a gang of Hornets, including Gildersleeve and Ethan Walsh, dropped Simmons for a loss of a half of a yard.
On fourth down, Pioneer pitched to Simmons, who tested the left side of the defense again. He cut back to the middle and was met by a Hornet. Then O’Keefe, Leyden and Gildersleeve helped drag him down.
“Like I’ve been saying all year, we bend don’t break. This defense has shown a lot of toughness. Everyone doubted us at the beginning of the year, but I’m liking who we’re coming together and embracing the idea of ‘bend don’t break,’” O’Keefe said.
Saline took over deep in their own territory with just a few seconds left in the third quarter. Four plays later the Hornets punted from their end zone. Patteri kicked a beauty, high into the mist. The returner dropped it at midfield and Felton recovered at the Pioneer 47.
Saline couldn’t turn the turnover into points, but the recovered fumbled rested a tired defense that would have been defending a short field. Saline went 3-and-out and punted. This time, the Pioneers started at their own 13. The Saline defense gave nothing and Pioneer punted from the 19. The line drive punt bounced all the way down to the Saline 23. Saline started a scoring drive with 7:10 to play in the game. On 3rd-and-2, Hibbard broke loose for a 26-yard gain for a first down at the Pioneer 43. Two plays later, Schwartzenberger connected with Wolma on a 17-yard passing play for a first down at the 26. A pass reception and rush by Andrew Diuble gave Saline another first down at the 14. Two plays later, Diuble ran a sweep for another first down at the Pioneer two. Hibbard was stopped on first and goal but he scored on the next rush. JT Turner’s kick was good and Saline led 20-9 late in the game.
Palka liked the way his offense put Pioneer’s back to the wall.
“Championship teams do that. We didn’t want to put our defense back on the field in another pressure situation. The ability to go down the field, take some time off the clock and score was the best thing we did offensively, all night,” Palka said.
Palka was impressed by the work of Connor Hibbard. When the team needed to score in the fourth quarter, the coaches went with Hibbard.
“We were trying a few different things because they were packing the defense in so tight. But at the end of the day we said, let’s put the ball in Hibbard’s hands because they haven’t stopped him yet,” Palka said. “He picked up the hard yards. He picked up a big first early in that drive.”
The Hornets snuffed out any Pioneer hopes when Ethan Walsh intercepted a pass and stepped out of bounds.
Palka credited a Pioneer team that is far better than its 1-5 record suggests.
“Our kids knew how talented Pioneer was. They were a few breaks away from being 4-1 instead of 1-4. We had nothing but respect for them and we knew how difficult this game was going to be,” Palka said. “To win here is an accomplishment.”
The Hornets are 4-0 in the SEC. Bedford, after defeating Monroe, 13-10, is 3-1. If Saline defeats Monroe next week, the Hornets will have sole ownership of the SEC Red.
Coach Joe Palka said that his Hornets are greedy.
“Our goal is to get better every week. But we’re greedy. We don’t want to share the SEC,” Palka said. “Monroe will provide a heck of a challenge. We’ll start working on them Monday. We’ll be ready to go.
“Everyone wants to win this thing outright. No one likes to share a championship, it’s like kissing your sister,” O’Keefe said. “To win another SEC title outright would be a dream for me and I can’t for next Friday and work with these guys.”
Mancino’s Pizza & Grinders 3 Stars:
- Connor Hibbard – In a game with several talented running backs, Hibbard was the star. He had one long touchdown reception, two touchdown runs, several big gains and several clutch runs. For a small back known for his quickness and elusiveness he runs with surprising power.
- CJ Gildersleeve – The strong and savvy linebacker was all around the football and in on several of the goal-line stand tackles.
- Robbie Felton – The cornerback broke up a couple pass plays, including one in the end zone, helped contain the running, and recovered a fumble on punt return. Teams don’t test Felton much in the passing game and he showed why today.