FOOTBALL: Saline Snaps Skid, Defeats Lake Orion to Enter Playoffs on a Winning Note

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LAKE ORION - It was an unfamiliar position for the Saline varsity football team. The Hornets had lost two straight games and needed a win to right the ship before the playoffs. But the Lake Orion Dragons, a solid football team, were fighting for their lives and would see their season end on senior night if they lost.

After Saline's 49-21 victory, it's safe to say Saline was up for the challenge.

The Hornets finished the season with a 7-2 record. The announcement of the qualifiers and first-round pairings for the playoffs will take place at 6 p.m. Sunday on the “Selection Sunday Show” on Bally Sports Detroit and its website – https://www.ballysports.com/detroit/. The playoff qualifiers and pairings will be posted to the MHSAA Website following the Selection Sunday Show.

Coach Joe Palka said it was an important win for Saline.

"Coming off two losses, we just keep getting better. Being on the road, in a tough environment with a packed stadium, it was their senior night and they needed this win to get in the playoffs, so there were a lot of things riding on it and I thought we answered the bell right away after a long bus trip," Palka said. "We looked good offensively and defensively all night long.

QB CJ Carr completed 26 of 35 pass attempts for 385 yards and 4 TDs with no interceptions. In fact, the Hornets did not turn over the ball. The Saline defense recovered three fumbles and picked off a pass.

Carr also rushed for two touchdowns. Garrett Baldwin rushed twice for 22 yards and a touchdown. He also caught four passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. Caid Fox caught 12 passes for 188 yards and a TD (and had another kong TD called back). Roman Laurio caught six passes for 46 yards and a touchdown. Dylan Mesman caught four passes for 26 yards and a touchdown.

Sullivan Mills paced the defense with 11 tackles. Ryan Stein had 8.5 tackles and an interception. Tate Bezeau and Sam Kreuzer each had  5 tackles and two tackles for a loss. Kreuzer forced two fumbles. Cade Tousa recovered two fumbles and Mills recovered one.

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Both of Saline's first two trips to the end zone were set up by fumble recoveries. On Lake Orion's first drive, the Dragons pushed down to the Saline 29. On 4th and 8, QB TR Hil picked up 12 yards - but Kreuzer jarred the ball loose and Tousa picked it up. Saline took over at its 17.

Carr threw first-down passes to Mesman and Lairiou to move the ball out to midfield. On 3rd-and-10, Carr threw to Fox for a 14-yard gain and another first. Carr went right back to Fox for a 22-yard gain to the Dragon 24.  Two plays later, Carr passed to Fox for another seven-yard pick up. On 3rd-and-2, Ryan Niethammer trucked for seven yards and a first down at the 10. On the next play, Garrett Baldwin ran in for the score. Riley Behrman's kick was good and Saline led 7-0.

The Saline defense got the ball right back. On the first play from scrimmage, Hill fumbled and Tousa, again, recovered for Saline. The Hornets had the ball at the Dragon 17. Carr passed to Laurio for a five-yard pickup. And then hew threw to Fox for a 14-yard gain down to the one. A penalty pushed Saline back to the six. From there, Carr rushed in. Saline led 14-0 after Behrman's kick.

Lake Orion's next drive proved successful. The Hornets thought they had the Dragons stopped at 4th-and-13 from the 133 after a sack by Michael Reder and Jackson Conley. But QB TR Hill passed to his brother Dorian for the touchdown. Saline led 14-7 early in the second quarter.

The Hornets weren't about to let the Dragons make it a game. Saline quickly moved down the field. Carr and Baldwin connected for a 22-yard pass to get out to midfield. Carr then passed to Caid Fox for 20 yards. 

Another pass to Fox went for a touchdown but it was called back due to holding. No matter, three plays later, Carr followed his blockers in for a one-yard touchdown. Saline led 21-7 after Behrman's kick.

The Saline defense gave up very little on the next Dragon possession. Lake Orion went 3-and-out and punted from its 27. Saline's possession was foiled by penalties and the Hornets punted from their 42. The Dragons started their next possession with 1:38 left in the half. They moved out to about midfield and the Hornets stopped them there. After a holding penalty on third down, the Dragons punted from their 39. Saline took over at the Dragon 40.

On first down, Carr threw to Fox for a 40-yard touchdown.

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Saline took the 28-7 lead into halftime.

Lake Orion kicked off to Saline to start the third. The Hornets went about 20 yards before the lined up to punt. Ian Furlong bobbled the snap and couldn't get the punt off. Furlong did well to get back beyond the line of scrimmage, making two tacklers miss.

This could have been Lake Orion's chance, with possession at the Saline 40. But on first down, Sam Kreuzer jarred another ball loose and Sullivan Mills recovered it for Saline.

And for the third consecutive time, Saline's offense turned the turnover into seven points. Runs by Niethammer and a couple of passes to Fox helped Saline get down to the Lake Orion 9. From there, Carr passed to Mesman, who made a diving catch in the end zone.

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Saline led 35-7 after the Behrman kick.

The Dragons, to their credit, kept battling. Their next possession went 59-yards and was capped by a 13-yard TD run by Billy Robertson.

Saline answered right back. Saline moved the chains once on a 14-yard run by Carr. Two plays later, Carr faked the handoff to James Rush and then passed to Baldwin, who ran past everyone for a 66-yard touchdown.

Saline led 42-14 after the Behrman kick.

The next Lake Orion drive began at its 23.  Three plays later, after a sack by Kreuzer, Isaiah Harris and Sullivan, the Dragons punted from their 16.

Saline's next drive resulted in a punt by Furlong. The Dragons took over at their 39 and nine plays later, TR Hill reconnected with his brother Dorian for a 24-yard TD in the corner of the end zone. Saline led 42-21.

The Hornets sent their "hands team" out there to make sure Lake Orion wouldn't have the chance to recover an onside kick. The Hornets seemed content with winding the clock down with running plays. An unsportsmanlike conduct play moved Saline 15 yards down the field.  On 4th-and-8 from the Lake Orion 28, Carr threw to Laurio along the Saline sideline for another touchdown.

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Saline hung on to win 49-21.

Palka was happy with the way his team responded after two losses to Bedford and Dexter spoiled their SEC Red title hopes.

"To be honest, the Bedford game was a kick in the teeth. I thought we made a lot of progress last week and we fell just short of winning the game. Our offense was much better and this week we took the next step. Our defense has just been very consistent," Palka said.

The Hornets, at 7-2 - and with both of those losses being very winnable games - are still gunning for a long run in the MHSAA playoffs. The team still breaks up meetings with the "state champs" chant.

Like all Palka teams, it's about getting one-week better. And that's what Palka has seen since the Bedford setback.

"We're still a work in progress but I do like the way we've responded over the last two weeks," Palka said. "If that's a sign of things to come then I really like where we are at."

This marks the 11th straight year - all in the Joe Palka era - that Saline has posted seven wins or more.

Playoff Projection in Tatters

Everyone's favorite MHSAA Football playoff projector, Snooze2You, projected that Saline would lose to Lake Orion and enter the playoffs at 6-3 (and that Lake Orion would get in at 5-4). Obviously, Saline's win dashed that notion. That projection had Saline in a district with Belleville (9-0), Woodhaven and Huron. But Woodhaven lost to Carlson and will finish 5-4 - no guarantee they get in at 5-4. Closer to home, Huron lost to Holt, 14-8. So it's possible Huron might not get in, either, because they're 5-4.

Belleville, the other team projected to be in the district, completed their perfect season with a 42-14 win over Livonia Franklin (8-1).

SEC RED Results

Saline 49 Lake Orion 21
Dexter 45 Chelsea 0
Riverview 49 Monroe 27
Bedford 1 Detroit Western 0 (forfeit)
Holt 14 Huron 8
Pinckney 41 Pioneer 20
Lincoln 27 Ypsilanti 14
Adrian Madison 22 Skyline 19

Team W-L (Conference) W-L (Overall)
Dexter 7-0 9-0
Saline 5-2 7-2
Temperance Bedford 5-2 7-2
Ann Arbor Huron 5-2 5-4
Monroe 3-4 3-6
Ypsilanti Lincoln 2-5 4-5
Ann Arbor Pioneer 1-6 1-8
Ann Arbor Skyline 0-7 0-9

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