FOOTBALL: Saline Holds Off Late Huron Charge to Win SEC Red Opener, Improve to 2-0


ANN ARBOR - Saline survived a late Huron charge and held on to beat the River Rats, 35-24.

Saline improved to 2-0 overall and 1-0 in the SEC Red.

QB CJ Carr completed 12 of 23 passes for 202 yards and two touchdown passes. Carr also ran 12 times for 60 yards and two touchdowns. He threw TD passes to Garrett Baldwin (2 catches, 77 yards) and Tate Bezeau. Roman Laurio caught 4 passes for 94 yards. Bezeau sealed the victory in the fourth quarter when he picked up a fumble, forced by Sullivan Mills (10.5 tackes, 1 sack), and returned it 60+ yards for a touchdown with 44 seconds to play.

For photos, click here.

Like last week against Hudsonville, the Hornets started a little slow. They exploded for 21 points in the second quarter to take a commanding 28-10 lead. Huron, led by former Hornet Andrew Harding, battled back and were threatening to take the lead in the final minute when the Saline defense finally stopped the River Rats.

Saline head coach Joe Palka expected a tough game. The last two games between Saline and the ever-improving River Rats have been close.

"Honestly, the finally score and the way the game went is every bit the way I expected. I knew no lead was going to be safe. They're too athletic," Palka said. "It was a program win for us. At times it felt like we were outmanned but we just kept hanging in there. Our big guys made plays and our defense just keeps growing. It's not perfect. We're very young. But to make those plays at the end with the game on the line and when all the momentum was against us, it's just a good compliment to our players."

Gameplanning the season, Palka thought it was possible Saline might start the season 0-2 and have to fight its way into the season. Instead, the Hornets are 2-0 as they learn on the job.

"I projected we'd be 0-2 and thinking about what we need to do to keep the kids believing.  So to be as young as we are and to be 2-0 right now is a huge bonus. It gives guys a lot of confidence," Palka said. "We can continue to make corrections and they can continue to grow. But to grow with a young team at 2-0 is a lot better than growing from 0-2."

There were some positives for the Saline offense, even if Huron kept the Hornets off the board in the second half. CJ Carr and his receivers Roman Laurio and Garrett Baldwin made big plays happen again.  Ryan Niethammer, especially in the first half, had a strong game rushing the football.Carr's ability to scramble is also coming into focus.

"He has the ability. He can move he can move. He has speed. In the second half he made a lot of great open field runs," Palka said.

So even though Saline's offense didn't score in the second half, Palka was pleased with the way the offense played.

"Huron's going to do things that make it tough. They're going to pressure you. They're going to play man to man. They're going to blitz you and they're going to load the box. If you can score points against that defense it gives you a lot of confidence," Palka said. "We didn't get everything we wanted in the second half, but we also turned it over and we had just a couple narrow misses. At the end of the day the rhythm of our offense was pretty good, we just have to finish a little more."

Defensively, the team wants to see the maturation of some of the younger players who were thrust into bigger roles this season. One of those players is Peyton Widen, who was around the ball whenever a big play was made Thursday.

"Peyton is one of those guys who's a program kid. You probably look at him early in his career and say, 'I don't know how long it's going to be before he can help us.' All of the sudden he's got to play because there is nobody else around him and guys had to step up. So for him to have the kind of game he had was just incredible," Palka said. "It goes to show you that you just work hard and keep grinding and do things right and you're going to get your opportunity. He made the most of it."



Saline managed a first down on its first possession before punting the ball away. Huron responded with a six-minute, 43-yard drive that concluded with a 42-yard field goal by Adam Samaha. Huron led 3-0.

For photos, click here.

Saline responded on their next possession with an 80-yard drive that took like less than two minutes off the clock. The big play was 32-yard passing play between CJ Carr and Roman Laurio on first down - pushing Saline to the Huron River Rat. Ryan Niethammer caught a pass for 11 yards. Officials talked on 15-yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. Niethammer rushed twice for a another first down, getting Saline down to the 7. CJ Carr followed his blockers into the end zone and Saline led 7-3 after Riley Behrman's kick.



The next River Rat drive made it to midfield before they punted the ball away. Saline replied with a 3-and-out possession and Ian Furlong punted the ball. The River Rats started at their 38. With a steady diet of runs by Donel Green and passes by Andrew Harding, the River Rats moved down to the Saline 8. From their, Green scored on a sweep. Huron led 10-7 midway through the second quarter.


The Hornets dominated the rest of the quarter. Saline scored on an 80-yard drive. Again, on the first play of the possession, Saline struck for a big passing play. Carr throw to Badlwin along the sideline for a 39-yard gain to the Huron 41. Niethammer rushed twice for a first down at the 33.  A few plays later, on third and 10, Niethammer rushed for 14 yards to move Saline down to the 12. He followed that up with another 10-yard gain to the two. CJ Carr scored on a keeper to cap the drive. Behrman's kick made it 14-10 with 4:31 to play in the half.


And here's where the back-and-forth game changed. Huron had moved the ball out to its 38 when it faced a 4th and 3. Rather than punt, the River Rats elected to try to gain three yards and keep the possession alive. Harding tried to pass to Green on the Huron sideline, but junior safety Peyton Widen sniffed it out and swatted the ball down into the turf to end the drive.

For photos, click here.

Saline had great field possession and made the River Rats pay. On first down, Carr spotted Garrett Baldwin along the Saline sideline with separation from his man. It was a perfect pass and catch, and Baldwin ran the final five yards for the touchdown. Saline led 21-10 after the kick by Behrman.


The good fortune considered for the Hornets. On the next play from scrimmage, Harding's pass along the Saline sideline was picked off by Widen. Saline had possession at the Huron 49. After run by Niethammer, a Carr pass to Caid Fox for a first down, and then a Carr scramble for a first down, Saline had a first down at the Huron 27. The Hornets moved the chains again with pass from Carr to Dylan Mesman and then another run by Carr. After two more runs by Niethammer and a pass from Carr to Fox, Saline, had a first down at the Huron 5. A couple plays later, Carr threw to Tate Bezeau in the end zone. Saline led 28-10 with just 9 seconds left in the half after Behrman's extra-point kick.



To their credit, the River Rats regrouped and started the third quarter with a 76-yard scoring drive. The drive concluded with a pass by Harding to Kameron Flowers for a touchdown. Samaha's extra-point kick was good and Saline led 28-17.  Saline's next possession stalled after gaining one first down. Furlong punted the ball away. Huron began at its 40 and moved the ball down to the 46 when the River Rats were called for holding, setting them back to midfield for a 4th-and-13 situation. This time the River Rats punted the ball away.

Saline took over at its nine. Two plays later, Carr scrambled for an 18=yard gain when a helmet harred the ball loose and Huron recovered. 


Working with a short field, the River Rats made good. On the third play of the fourth quarter, Harding passed to Flowers on a slant route for a 25-yard  touchdown play. Saline led 28-24 with 10:41 to play.

The Huron crowd came back to life.

For photos, click here.

Saline's next  drive started at its 20 and pushed its way down to the Huron 15. On 3rd-and-3, Carr scrambled down to the four for a first down - but the play was called back for holding (Earlier in the game, Carr had a long TD run called back for holding). That set up a 3rd-and-18. Two incomplete passes later, Huron had the ball at its 30 with 5:17 on the clock. Led by Harding and Greem, the River Rats pressed to the Saline 44, where they had a 3rd-and-4. Harding ran a sweep, like he'd done so often in the game. This time, Peyton Widen caught him and dropped him for a loss.

That set up a 4th and long.

Lineback Sully Mills broke through the line and caught Harding taking him down as he was releasing a pass. While Mills and some of the Hornets celebrated the drive-ending sack - DE Tate Bezeau realized the play hadn't been blown dead. He picked up the ball and ran all the way down the field for a 60-yard fumble return touchdown. Saline led 35-24 after the kick by Behrman.


Plays 54 66
OFF Yds 348 386
Time of POS 17:42 30:10
Rush Att-Yds 31 - 146 45 - 271
Pass Cmp/Att 12/23 12/21
Pass Yds 202 115
TD-Int 2 - 0 2 - 1
Lost 1 - 1 1 - 1
Turnovers 1 2
1st 19 24
1st Rush 12 17
1st Pass 6 7
1st Penalty 1 0
3rd 5/13 (38.5%) 8/14 (57.1%)
4th 1/2 (50%) 1/2 (50%)
Penalty Yds 3 - 25 8 - 52
Sk Yds 1 - 4 1 - 7
Punts - Avg 3 - 31.3 2 - 36
Cmp Att Yds TD Int
#13 CJ Carr 12 23 202 2 0
Att Yds Avg TD
#26 Ryan Niethammer 19 87 4.6 1
#13 CJ Carr 11 58 5.3 1
#8 Roman Laurio 1 1 1 0
Rec Yds Avg TD
#8 Roman Laurio 4 94 23.5 0
#18 Garrett Baldwin 2 77 38.5 1
#26 Ryan Niethammer 2 15 7.5 0
#10 Caid Fox 2 10 5 0
#42 Tate Bezeau 1 3 3 1
#5 Dylan Mesman 1 3 3 0
#36 Nate Walper 0 0 0 0
Tkl Solo Sac TFL Int
#80 Sullivan Mills 10.5 9 1 1 0
#20 Ryan Stein 10 8 0 1 0
#90 Sam Kreuzer 6.5 5 0 0 0
#18 Garrett Baldwin 4.5 3 0 0 0
#7 Jackson Conley 4.5 2 0 0 0
#42 Tate Bezeau 4 3 0 1 0
#24 James Chikwe 2.5 2 0 1 0
#21 Peyton Widen 2.5 2 0 0 1
#34 James Rush 2.5 2 0 0 0
#91 Isaiah Harris 2 2 0 0 0
#99 Andrew Harley 1.5 1 0 0 0
#2 Cade Tousa 1.5 1 0 0 0
#79 Michael Reder 1.5 1 0 1 0
#13 CJ Carr 1 1 0 1 0
#49 Ayden Burton 1 1 0 0 0
#4 Sam Miller 0.5 0 0 0 0
#12 Kyle Barbarino 0.5 0 0 0 0
#3 Riley Behrman 0 0 5 5
Att Yds Avg I20
#38 Ian Furlong 3 94 31.3 0
Att Yds Avg TD
#2 Cade Tousa 1 10 10 0
Att Yds Avg TD
#8 Roman Laurio 1 21 21 0


Saline's game with Huron was the only SEC Red game Thursday. Other games this week:

Monroe @ Lincoln
Skyline @ Dexter
Pioneer @ Bedford

Next week:

Lincoln @ Saline
Dexter @ Bedford (game to watch)
Huron @ Pioneer
Monroe @ Skyline



For photos, click here.

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