FOOTBALL: Saline Edges Huron, 10-7, in Defensive Struggle as Playoffs Begin

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Roman Laurio (8) celebrates Riley Behrman's (3) field goal in the fourth quarter of Saline's win over Huron.

The last time Saline played Huron, the two teams combined for 59 points as Saline won 35-24. That was the regular season.

Friday night, the MHSAA Division 1 football playoffs began. Saline advanced with a 10-7 victory over their conference rival in the pre-district game.

Coach Joe Palka expected a tight game that would be a battle until the end and that's exactly what he got.

"All along we knew it would be a fourth-quarter game. That's one of the best defenses I've ever coached against. The only thing I would say is our defense was just as good," Palka said. "I'm very proud of our kids. I'm very happy for our kids."

CJ Carr threw a first-quarter touchdown pass to Dylan Mesman. Huron responded on their next possession with a touchdown of its own. Midway through the fourth quarter, Riley Behrman kicked a 23-yard field goal to break the tie. Saline's defense forced a three-and-out and a punt and then Hornets moved the chains a couple times before running down the clock to seal the victory.

Saline improved to 8-2. Huron finished the season with a 5-5 record.

The Hornets will visit Belleville Friday to take on the state's top-rated team. Belleville beat Woodhaven, 48-0, Friday. The undefeated Tigers haven't had a close game all year.

The Hornets are undaunted by the challenge ahead.

"I'm sure people gave up on us after the Bedford loss. Nobody's going to give us a shot against Belleville, but the belief has always been in that locker room," Palka said. "We know it's a great team we're going to have to deal with and we're going to find a way to get it done."

Friday's game between Saline and Huron was close in many ways. Huron gained 235 yards  - 120 on the ground. Saline gained 201 yards - 144 in the air. Each team had a turnover. Saline gained 17 first downs - but the River Rats had the longest play - a 70-yard passing play that set up their touchdown.

One key difference was the Hornets took five penalties for 45 yards, while Huron was assessed 13 penalties for 110 yards. Saline's offense gained six first downs on penalties.

Saline QB CJ Carr completed 22 of 27 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown. James Rush ran the ball eight times for 33 yards. Roman Laurio caught eight passes for 62 yards. Dylan Mesman caught four passes for 20 yards and a touchdown. Caid Fox caught six passes for 33 yards.

On defense, Tate Bezeau made seven tackles, including a big tackle on Huron's last possession. Jackson Conley had 4.5 tackles and Sullivan Mills had 4 tackles. Garrett Baldwin and Michael Reder each had 3.5 tackles and Ryan Stein had three tackles.

The game began with Saline kicking off to Huron. Behrman's bouncing kick was returned to the Huron 39. A couple of plays later, the River Rats punted the ball and Saline's first drive started at its 32.

It was a long, uneven drive slowed by three penalties on the Hornets. But, as we've seen throughout the year, the drive was also buoyed by CJ Carr's ability to goad defenses into encroachment penalties. On 4th-and-4 from the Huron 36, that's exactly what Carr did to keep the drive alive.

The drive was propelled by short passes to Garrett Baldwin, Caid Fox and runs by Ryan Niethammer and Garrett Baldwin. Carr threw to Laurio in the corner of the end-zone. That pass was broken up by what Hornet fans thought was pass interference.

A couple of plays later, on 4th-and-13, Carr threw to Caid Fox, who was being held by a River Rat. This time, the officials called it. Saline had a first down at the Huron 16.

Two plays later, CJ Carr and Dylan Mesman connected on a beautiful passing play for six points. Carr rolled to his left and took the entire defense with him. He suddenly turned and found Mesman, who'd peeled away from the scrum, all alone.

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"It was a wide screen, so I'm supposed to fake block and then roll out. I pop up, the offensive line blocks for me and I score. It's a great play, Palka made it up this year. We've been practicing all week," Mesman said.

After Behrman's extra-point kick, Saline led 7-0.

The River Rats got the seven points back quickly. On the second play of the next drive former Hornet Andrew Harding passed to Kameron Flowers for a 70-yard gain to the Saline five. Only a valiant run and tackle by Baldwin prevented the touchdown. It looked like the Hornet defense might hold the River Rats out, pushing Huron to a 4th-and-2. But after two-time outs, the River Rats headed the ball to Bruce Williams, who found a hole and ran through it for six points. Adam Samaha's extra point made it 7-7.

The game was 7-7 with 1:24 remaining in the first quarter. At that point, the game transitioned into a defensive battle.

Saline's defense forced a 3-and-out. Huron did the same to Saline. The next Huron drive began at its 14. The River Rats pushed out to the 33 before taking a holding penalty. A couple plays later, after a couple of tackles by Bezeau, the Samaha punted. Saline took over at its 36. The Hornets moved 21 yards - 10 of which came on encroachment penalties - before the drive ended at the Huron 43 with a couple of incomplete passes.

Huron took over at its 42 with 3:20 left in the half. The River Rats picked up a first down on a run by Donel Green and then another first down when Jamil Thomas got over the market on 4th-and-1. The River Rats got as far as the 37 when they were assessed a penalty for holding. The River Rats got back to the 37 and faced a 4th-and-10. Samaha attempted a 54-yard field goal that fell a few yards short.

The game was tied at halftime.

The third quarter began with Samaha kicking the ball into the Saline endzone for a touchback. Carr threw three passes to Laurio, Fox and then Laurio again to get Saline out to the 43. A couple plays later, Carr moved the chains with a two-yard scramble. But the drive stalled there and Ian Furlong punted from Saline's 49. The punt rolled down to the Huron nine.

The River Rats put together their best drive of the second half, using runs by Green and Harding, and a pass by Harding to Davis Hugan for 18 yards, to move the ball beyond midfield to the Saline 31.  The drive looked even more worrisome when Hornet linebacker Sullivan Mills had to be helped off the field. On the next play, Luke Sundquist in for Mills, who was being assessed on the sideline, Tate Bezeau knocked the ball out of the hands of Green. Sundquist, a junior, recovered the ball.

"I'm so proud of him (Sundquist). He works so hard in practice. To see him out there is amazing," Mills  said.

The Huron defense continued to thwart Saline. Saline managed one complete pass for negative yardage on the next possession and Furlong punted from the Saline 30. Huron took over at its 28. On first down, Ryan Stein stopped Hugan, who'd caught a pass, for no gain. On second down, Bezeau stopped Harding after a one-yard rush. On third down, Bezeau again stopped Harding after a single yard gain. On 4th down, Samaha punted. Saline took over at its 34 as the third quarter wound down. On the last play of the quarter, Carr threw to Laurio for seven yards. Niethammer rushed twice to move the chains. Carr threw to Fox for a 15-yard gain to the River Rat 37.  A 22-yard pass to Laurio was wiped out by a penalty for a block in the back.  On 2nd-and-8, Carr passed to Mesman on a play that lost yards - but a facemask penalty moved the marker 15 yards to the Huron 25. After short runs by Niethammer and Carr, Carr passed to Fox for seven yards. Saline faced a 4th-and-1 at the Huron 15. 

Virtually everyone in Hornet Stadium knew Carr was going to try to induce another encroachment call. Huron called timeout. 

When they came back out, Carr managed to goad the River Rats into an jumping too soon.

Saline had a first down at the Huron 10.

Carr and the Hornets have been doing this to defenses all year. At times, like at Dexter, it's backfired with penalties or even a fumble and turnover.  But it's definitely an important part of the Hornet attack and something the Hornets are working to perfect.

"We've had mistakes with jumping offside and ball security but tonight was a big step in the right direction. We've been practicing all week. We planned for this. It was just great to see us take stride in the right direction," Carr said.

Palka said drawing those penalties is just one of the ways Carr keeps drives alive.

"They have great athletes and they play you man-to-man and they're going to blitz you. It's the toughest scenario you can see. We have to have answers for that and CJ was a big part of that. He kept plays alive with his head and kept plays alive with his legs and his arm," Palka said. "I'm impressed with CJ and his continued growth. We spent extra time on it this week and it really paid off. We felt confident when we went under center we were going to get them to jump and we did it at a critical time."

On first down, Niethammer rushed for seven yards, setting up 2nd-and-3. But Niethammer was taken down for a four-yard loss on second down. A third-down pass into the end zone for Mesman was knocked down.

On fourth down, Riley Behrman came out to kick the field goal.

"They called my name and I was ready," Behrman said. "It got blocked on the way up. When it got blocked, I think the whole field got silent for a second, but it went in and that's what matters."

Saline led 10-7 with 5:56 to play.

The River Rats' final possession began at their 20 after Behrman's touchback. They gained a first down at the 36 after two runs by Green. Saline put an end to their River Rats hopes there. Michael Reder stopped Greena after a one-yard gain on first. On second down, Bezeau stopped Green for no gain. On third down, Mills rushed Harding and forced an errant throw. With 3:49 remaining, Samaha punted. Saline took over at its 14.

The Hornets faced a 3rd-and-6 and moved the chains on another pass interference penalty. James Rush followed that up with a 17-yard gain out to the 50. Rush ran three more times to pick up a first at the Huron 39. Out of timeouts, time expired on the River Rats season.

Palka said he was impressed by the way his team handled a close, hard-fought playoff game. He was also impressed by the way the Hornets avoided penalties.

"Some of the mistakes we've made in the past, such as illegal procedure or jumping offside, we didn't make any of those mistakes tonight. It was impressive to see how mentally tough our kids were," Palka said. "That's a great sign of growth and another reason why this was a huge team win."

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Interviews with Coach Palka, CJ Carr, Riley Behrman, Dylan Mesman and Sullivan Mills.

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