Saline exploded for 21 points in the third quarter and defeated East Kentwood, 42-7, to win the district championship and advance to next week's regional final against Rockford.
The lopsided score between two highly-ranked, 9-1 teams came despite several Saline turnovers and untimely penalties.
“What’s starting to get scary about this team is, if we ever put it together, don’t turn the ball over and take advantage of all our opportunities, with the way the defense is playing right now, anything is possible,” Saline head coach Joe Palka said. “We flipped it in the third quarter. It was a tight game. Once we got snowballing, it’s hard to overcome if you’re the other team.”
East Kentwood had no answer for the Andrew-Arbaugh-to-Brendan Murphy connection - not against a Saline Hornet defense that limited the Falcons to just one touchdown - a 3rd-and-16 screen pass on their first possession of the game
Junior linebacker Alex Morrison picked off two passes and returned them both for touchdowns. Andrew Arbaugh completed 16-of-21 passes for 287 yards and 3 TDs. Brendan Murphy caught eight passes for 187 yards and caught three touchdown passes.
“This was a huge statement game. Coach Palka said it in the locker room. We sent a shockwave throughout the state about how dominant we can be if we all play like we did today,” Morrison said.
Saline (10-1) and East Kentwood (9-2) came into the game with identical 9-1 records. The Hornets were ranked fifth in the Associated Press poll, one spot behind the Falcons. East Kentwood had never scored less than 28 points. They hadn’t given up more than 30 points since week two.
East Kentwood jumped out to a good start against the Hornets. They kicked off to Saline, who pushed the ball over midfield but turned it over when MJ Griffin fumbled at the East Kentwood 39. The Falcons took over at their 29. On first down, Jonah Ashby sacked Kyle Dent for a six-yard loss. Two plays later, Dent tossed a screen pass to Kionte Blakely over the middle. He slipped through the defense and went all the way for a 77-yard touchdown.
Coach Joe Palka talked about the importance of preventing the Falcons from breaking the big plays, so this wasn’t the start he wanted. Saline quickly rebounded. MJ Griffin’s 47-yard kickoff return gave the Hornets good field position at the East Kentwood 47. Brendan Munday (19 carries, 86 yards, 1 TD), picked up nine yards on the ground. So far, Munday had rushed the ball on six of Saline’s 9 downs.
The Hornets were primed for the bread-and-butter play. Play action then Arbaugh passed over the middle to Brendan Murphy. He ran into the end zone, untouched.
The score was tied at 7 after JT Turner’s kick.
Saline’s stellar defense regained its footing on the Falcons’ next possession. After giving up an 18-yard run on first down, the Hornets locked it down. Adonis Gammo dropped Stephan Bracey for a loss on the next play. A passing play fell incomplete. On 3rd-and-12, Zach Sabin stopped Dent after an eight-yard scramble. The Falcons punted from their 44.
Saline’s defense, which had moved the ball well in each of its first two possession, ran into trouble on its next drive. A false-start penalty sent the Hornets back to its own 11 on first down. Saline moved the chains once because of a personal foul on the Falcons. But two passing plays and a running play netted a grand total of zero yards, and Brendan Cropsey was called in to punt on fourth down.
The Falcons took over at their own 43. The Falcons pushed into Saline territory with a first down pass to Bracey. Blakely carried twice for another first down at the Saline 32. That’s when the Falcons ran into foul trouble. On 3rd-and-5 from the 27, the Falcons were whistled for a chop block. Facing 4th-and-16 at the Saline 38, the Falcons punted to the Saline four.
With their backs to their endzone, the Hornets handed off to MJ Griffin. On first down, he picked up 10 yards. On second down, he was stopped for a loss, but the Falcons were penalized for a personal foul. Saline had a nother first down at its 26. But on the first play of the second quarter, Arbaugh’s pass for Murphy was picked off by Ryel Daye. The Falcons took over at their 50. They pushed as far as the Saline 36. On 3rd-and-6 at the 35, Zach Sabin sacked Dent for a five-yard loss. On 4th-and-11, the Falcons were penalized for delay of game. Backwards they went. East Kentwood punted from its 46.
Saline took over at its nine. Arbaugh passed to Murphy for 12 yards. On the next play, Brendan Munday brought the Hornets out of their seats with an 81-yard touchdown run.
He started to his left, broke a tackle, reversed the field and then sprinted down the sideline for the touchdown. But officials had called a block in the back.
Saline was sent back to its nine. Griffin helped the cause by picking up 16 yards. Then Arbaugh threw to Kolton Malinczak for 17 yards. Officials tacked on another 15 yards for facemasking. On 2nd-and-13, Munday rumbled 25 yards to the Falcons’ 31. Two plays later, Arbaugh passed over the middle to Murphy, who was well covered. It looked like a sure interception, but the ball bounced off one Falcons’ fingertips and Murphy stayed with it, leaped, caught the ball and then turned to run into the end zone.
Saline led 14-7 midway through the quarter after JT Turner’s kick.
“We threw the one into coverage and (Brendan) stayed with it an made a play. He’s done that all year. I talk about great players making us right, well, he had three touchdown catches and I built the gameplan around him a lot today,” Palka said. “We don’t have this type of success here today unless he’s here.”
The Falcons were determined to get those points back. But the Hornets were more determined to stop them.
On first down, the Falcon’s speedy running back, Blakely, broke loose for a long run. But Griffin caught him from behind at the Saline 10.
Griffin saved a sure touchdown.
Four plays later, he blocked a 25-yard field goal attempt.
“Those two plays he made were huge plays. Blocking the kick kept momentum back on our side. If they score right away (after Saline’s TD), it doesn’t look good. We didn’t want to get in a 45-44 game with them. I thought we had to play to our defense,” Palka said. “So when he was able to make us right there and give us another chance to go back on offense, that was a huge play.”
The Hornets dodged a bullet.
But there were more twists to this topsy-turvy first half. After the big defensive stop, the Hornets looked like they might have seized momentum. They quickly moved the ball up the field with a pass to Murphy and a run by Griffin. On 2nd-and-5 from the 48, Arbaugh threw to Malinczak for a big gain down to the East Kentwood 10, but the Falcons stripped the ball loose and fell on it at their own four. This time, the Falcons dodged a bullet.
Saline went into halftime with a 14-7 lead – but knowing they could have a bigger lead. Coach Palka told the team to forget about the mistakes.
“Forget about the mistakes, let’s just go out and play. We need everybody. It’s the nature of football, it’s up and down, and we needed those same guys to make plays in the second half,” Palka said.
The second half began with JT Turner kicking off to the Falcons. Blakely returned it 15 yards to the 18. Three plays later, Alex Morrison stripped the ball out of Blakely’s hands and it was recovered by Saline’s Monty Green at the Falcons’ 34.
The Hornets had a great chance to pull away. A false start penalty slowed the Hornets.
On 4th-and-11 from the 35, Arbaugh passed to Murphy, who broke several tackles before he was dragged down at the East Kentwood 3. On the next play, Brendan Munday was tackled for a loss and the ball came loose. East Kentwood recovered at its four.
Saline’s defense came up big again.
“Our defense is playing with so much confidence. They’re like, that’s alright. We’ll get you the ball back,” Palka said.
On first down, Jonah Ashby stopped Blakely for a one-yard loss. On second down, Ashby tackled Blakely for a two-yard loss. On 3rd-and-13 at the 1, Ashby and Gammo were coming hard for the Dent in the end zone. He threw a pass directly to Morrison – who caught the pass and returned the interception for the touchdown.
Saline led 21-7 after Turner’s kick.
That’s when Palka went to his bag of tricks. JT Turner’s kick off was recovered by Sammy Lupascu at the East Kentwood 24. After losing a yard on first down, Arbaugh got 10 back with a pass to Murphy. Munday moved the chains with a short run. Arbaugh passed to Malinczak for a nine-yard gain. Then Arbaugh moved the chains with a keeper. After two plays for no gain, Arbaugh passed to Munday, who slipped one tackler and then swept around the outside for a four-yard touchdown.
Saline led 28-7 after Turner’s kick.
The Hornets were swarming. Back on defense, Ashby and Gammo sacked Dent on 2nd-and-10 for a nine-yard loss. Two plays later, the Falcons punted. Saline took over at its 24. Saline advanced with a run by Munday, pass to Munday and run by Arbaugh. Saline moved the chains again after Joel Klomega suffered a late hit along the sideline. On first-and-10 from the Falcons’ 44, Arbaugh went over the middle again to Murphy. It was a perfect pass and Murphy ran in untouched.
Saline was up 35-7 after the kick by Turner.
Saline added seven more points in the fourth quarter when Morrison made a leaping interception and then returned it 45 yards for a touchdown.
“In a lot of circles, (Morrison) is underrated. I think you see today why we think he’s a great player. Not only does he play linebacker really well, and is he gaining all the tools there, he can make plays anytime he touches the ball,” Palka said. “Those defensive touchdowns were critical for us.”
Mancino’s Pizza 3 Stars
- Brendan Murphy – The TE returned to action this week and had a career day, with eight catches for 187 yards and three TDs. Murphy, an all-state hockey player, should start gaining some all-state attention in football as well.
- Alex Morrison – Forced a fumble. Made two interceptions and returned them both for touchdowns. His pick six early in the third quarter changed the game.
- Jonah Ashby – The defensive line continues to dominate bigger offensive lines. Ashby was a beast today, leading the team with 7.5 tackles and four tackles for a loss. The game-changing play, perhaps, was the first Morrison pick six. That was set up by two tackles for a loss by Ashby, and then a lot of pressure by Ashby.
Honorable mention – MJ Griffin had the huge defensive sequence in the second quarter to keep the Hornets ahead. Also set up Saline’s second TD with an important kickoff return.
Honorable mention – Andrew Arbaugh is putting up some gaudy numbers these days. In two playoff games he’s 32-for-41 for 464 yards, four TDs and two INTs.
Honorable mention – JT Turner has been automatic on extra points. He also helped the Hornets get the ball back and build momentum with well-placed kickoffs.