TEMPERANCE -- Larry Robinson threw two touchdown passes and ran for another and Noah Nelson picked off two passes in the fourth quarter as Saline defeated Bedford, 24-21, to improve to 3-0 in the SEC Red and 5-1, overall. It was Saline’s 31st straight win in SEC Red action.
Down 21-17 in the fourth quarter, Robinson, the sophomore quarterback, engineered a 14-play, 65-yard scoring drive capped by Robinson’s five-yard keeper. Robinson connected with receiver Kolton Malinczak on key third-and-long and fourth-and-long plays to keep the drive going.
Saline preserved the lead with two interceptions by Nelson in the final three minutes.
It was the toughest test the Hornets faced since their opening night loss to Chippewa Valley, and the Hornets passed with flying colors. Saline head coach Joe Palka was justifiably proud of his team.
“I’m really proud of the guys. We played a great 48 (minutes). We knew it was going to be a back-and-forth game against a great offensive team like that,” Palka said. “We did just enough to make some stops in the second half and make them uncomfortable at the end of the game when they had to throw the ball.”
Palka credited his seniors like Nelson and Malinczak for leadership and clutch plays.
“You talk about seniors stepping up, you know, Nelly (Nelson) with two picks in the second half, we just stuck with our beliefs, and played the full 48. I’m really proud of our guys,” Palka said.
On what proved to be the game-winning scoring drive, Malinczak made a highlight-reel diving catch on third-and-long and had important yards after catch after getting hit on a fourth-down conversion.
“That was a huge, huge play. And they’re rotating coverage to him. He’s got to battle through all that double coverage,” Palka said. “Seniors made plays today. I was really proud of our guys,” Palka said.
The Hornets were also impressed with their sophomore quarterback. For the first time of his varsity career, Robinson took every snap and made good use of Saline’s limited time with the ball. The poise who showed on Saline’s final scoring drive was remarkable.
“I felt like he really didn’t make any mistakes today. He played a complete game. You could just tell over the past couple of games that he’s starting to rise. He had a great week of practice,” Palka said. “I’ll tell you, tough place to play. You get your first full start at Bedford with, let’s be honest, a share of the league championship on the line. I’m really proud of him.”
Saline’s defense came up with a fourth-down stop to end Bedford’s first possession at the Saline 24-yard line.
Saline used a nice run by Cade Gilless and a pass to Kyle Greenwood to move the ball over midfield. After a keeper by Robinson, Robinson passed to Malinczak near the Saline sideline. Malinczak made the catch around the three-yard line and ran in for a seven-yard scoring play. Brendan Cropsey made the extra point and Saline led 7-0.
The Mules responded on their next possession, using a steady diet of Christian Brown and Lucas Carver to move the ball down the field. Brown scored on a short touchdown run to tie the score in the second quarter.
Saline responded with quickly, moving the ball down the field on a 63-yard run by Gilless, who somehow emerged from a scrum on his feet and then raced down the sideline before being pushed out of bounds inside the 10. Robinson tossed a pass to Darmos, who used his height and positioning to bring down the reception in the end zone. Saline led 14-7.
But the Mules responded their own scoring drive. Carver scored on a 20-yard run through the middle. The game was tied 14-14 at halftime.
Saline had the ball first to start the second half. They were moving efficiently down the field before a high snap set and a penalty set the Hornets back. On fourth and long, Palka called in Brendan Cropsey for a 43-yard field goal attempt. Cropsey’s kick was straight down the middle and had just enough leg to clear the bar by a couple yards. Saline led 17-14 on the longest field goal of Cropsey’s career.
That field goal proved important because the Mules scored on their next possession with a 14-play, 58-yard drive. The Mules converted a fourth-and-two to keep the drive going. Brown scored on a three-yard run to give Bedford the 21-17 lead in the fourth quarter.
Suddenly, the Hornet offense was under immense pressure. They needed a score. And worse, failing to score might give the suddenly unstoppable Mules a chance to expand their lead.
The Hornets started at their own 35 when Darmos recovered the kickoff. They worked their way up the field, converting several big plays. On third-and-long, Robinson threw a pass to the sideline for Malinczak, whose toes grazed the turf as the dove out of bounds to make the catch.
Darmos also had a big catch. Later, on fourth-and-long, facing the possibility that a turnover might mean the Hornets never see the ball again, Robinson threw a short pass to Malinczak, who bumped and slid past the first tackler, eluded another, and then broke to the sideline for a long gain down to the five. From there, Robinson scored on a keeper, looking to the sky and pumping his fist as he crossed the goal line.
Now it was time for a defensive stop. At first, it didn’t look promising. The Mules were marching down the field. And then Christian Brown looked like he’d picked up a huge gain. But as he hit the sideline, he tried to hurdle the Saline tacklers. Instead of a big gain, the Mules were sent backward. Palka yelled to his defense. “Use this. Use this.”
The defense did just that, forcing the run-happy Mules to go to the air on fourth-and-13. Nelson took advantage and intercepted the pass along the sidelines. A long return got cut down by a penalty. Saline took over in their own territory but couldn’t move the chains. Cropsey punted. The Mules started at their own 48 with 1:18 to play. Saline stopped a couple of running plays. On third and long, Henry Koenen and the defense dropped the Bedford QB for a loss. The backup QB was forced to enter the game. On 4th and 10 with 28 seconds to play, Nelson went way up and picked off another pass around his own 20-yard line.
The game was over.
The Saline Post 3 Stars
Larry Robinson - The sophomore QB, playing his first full game ever, on the road, against the chief rival for the SEC Red crown, did very well with limited minutes (Bedford controlled the clock with its running game). He threw for two TDs and ran for another. And, down to a Bedford team gaining momentum as the game went on, Robinson showed great poise engineering the game-winning drive.
Noah Nelson - Was called on to make several tackles as the Bedford runners gained big yards. But Nelson’s biggest contributions were his two interceptions in the final moments of the game. The first took the wind out of the sails of the Mules, who’d scored touchdowns on three straight drives. The second ended the game.
Kolton Malinczak - RB Cade Gilless had a few big plays and deserves some mention here, but Malinczak had a TD reception. And he made two catches that might have saved the game for the Hornets on their last scoring drive. The first, was a highlight-reel diving catch on third and long. The fourth was a huge fourth-down conversion with lots of yards after the original contact.