When Saline stormed off the field, celebrating its game-winning defensive stand from inside the two yard line in the regional championship triumph over Rockford, even veteran coach Duane Wilson was speechless.
“There was a split second when I didn't know what was going on, but I didn't see him come out the other side. The big official over here started running down the goal line. Once I saw him waving that it was no good then I was able to relax. I think it hit me maybe 20-30 seconds later. I couldn't believe it,” Wilson said. “I've been doing this for 30 years and to be part of that - this stuff doesn't happen all the time.”
Wilson has been around the game a long time. At Burton Bentley High School, he was an all-league performer in football, baseball and basketball. He went to Western Michigan University to play football and was first-team MAC and a captain of the Broncos. Since then he’s coached at the high school level and also coached at Ferris State University for 20 years – 15 as defensive coordinator.
At Ferris State, there was one game where his defense saved the game with a game-ending goal line stand but, he conceded, it wasn’t as dramatic as last week’s game which sent Saline to the final four (The Hornets play Clarkston at Okemos at 1 p.m., Saturday in the MHSAA Division 1 semifinal).
When Rockford, down 13-12 after its overtime touchdown pass, decided to go for two instead of kick for one, the Hornets weren’t surprised.
“The only thing that surprised me was that they could get the touchdown and still get the penalty for pass interference,” Wilson said.
Wilson was confident in his defense. He recalled what he said to the defense during the timeout.
“We had an idea about what they were going to run. All we told the kids was that we’d never given up the lead all day,” Wilson said. “And, ‘would you rather have the game in your hands, or someone else’s.”
Wilson explained how the final pay went down. As Saline’s dominating defensive line got a good push, the Rockford fullback stumbled just a bit in the backfield.
“He didn’t hit the line with a lot of speed,” Wilson said. “And then we all just hit the right spot.”
Corner Isaac Zambeck made the first contact, which was fitting, because it was Zambeck who got called for pass interference on the previous play.
“Zambeck drilled the guy and then the two linebackers fit perfectly and the kids just made the play,” Wilson said.
It was such a dramatic victory that some Hornets struggled for the words to describe it.
Nearly a week later, head coach Joe Palka spoke of its significance.
“That game last week encapsulates our season. We had every reason to lose when things didn’t go our way, but we found ways to win,” Palka said.
Most of those ways involve suffocating defense. Linebacker Alex Morrison has scored more touchdowns than the defense has given up during regulation in three playoff games. The Saline defense hasn’t given up more than a touchdown in regulation since beating Bedford in week four. During last week’s football game, it looked like Saline was playing for a 3-0 or 6-0 win – which seems uncharacteristic for a Palka football team.
This Saline team has the lowest points-against-per-game average since 1986. Saline is giving up just 9.67 points per game. And some of those 116 points have come on turnovers or against special teams.
So what makes this defense so good?
When Wilson took over as defensive coordinator in 2016, he simplified the strategy and the kids are buying in.
“We’re doing similar things, but we don’t do a lot of formations and try to memorize everything the offense does,” Wilson said. “We’re teaching football. We’re not gambling and blitzing a lot. We’re trying to read and react and earn everything.”
Saline couldn’t contain Chippewa Valley during an opening night victory. But except for the second half against Bedford, the defense has shut down every opponent it has faced. Success bred confidence. Which bred more success. And more confidence.
“We talk about living to play another down. We’re not worried about drawing a line in the dirt,” Wilson said. “Eventually, we just think you’re going to put it on the turf or screw something up, or one of us is going to make a big play.”
It all begins with a defensive line that had just one returning starter – DE Brad Wisniewski. He’s one of the guys who embodies what the defense is all about. Speed. Effort. Skill.
“He’s exceptionally fast and he never quits on plays. He’s got a knack of slipping blocks. For his size and strength, it’s amazing how fast he is,” Wilson said. “He’s a great leader who leads by example. He seldom says a word.”
The other DE is Jonah Ashby. As Wilson said, it’s hard to believe he’s a first-year starter. He’s got good size and he’s quick. He plays with the same fiery style as his older brother Caleb, who was one of the leaders of the Hornets’ remarkable turnaround in year one of the Palka era.
Senior Adonis Gammo plays inside.
“He’s quick on the ball and very quick, side-to-side. He’s an excellent pass rusher and he’s been making big plays at key moments all year long,” Wilson said.
They’re joined by Zach Sabin, a quick, 6-2, 225-pound junior who made a crucial stop on fourth down last week, and 6’4, 270-pound junior, Henry Koenen.
“The three seniors are high-energy, high-motor guys. The other two guys are emerging in their own right,” Wilson said. “Those two defensive ends give us the ability to cover a lot of area and get outside and tackle guys like linebackers. They are exceptionally fast.”
That makes life easier for the linebackers, Alex Morrison, Connor Terech and Monty Green. Terech is a three-year starter at linebacker.
“He’s a coach on the field. He gets us lined up and does a lot of good things because of his intellect and his great mentality about the game,” Wilson said.
Morrison moved from free safety to linebacker, replacing CJ Gildersleeve. The 6’0, 210-pound Morrison has quickly adapted to the position.
“He’s an athlete with great size – and he’ll only get bigger – and a great understanding of the game. With that speed, he takes away a lot of stuff in the middle,” Wilson said.
Green, a junior, and first-year starter, endured a rocky road early in the season, Wilson said, but “he’s coming on and improving every week.”
At safety, MJ Griffin is the team’s one true Division 1 football star. The temple commit moved from corner to safety, where the team benefits as much from his strength as his speed. He’s the first Hornet in the Palka era to play significantly on both sides of the ball. Wilson said it suits him.
“MJ covers so much ground and he’s improved a lot. I think playing on offense seems to bring the best out him,” Wilson said. “He’s fast and strong and plays with a lot of confidence. He’s a kid who works on football all year around, and it shows.”
A lot of the Hornet defense is geared toward directing the offense to Wisniewski, Morrison and Griffin.
Harrison Hill and Kyle Greenwood have joined MJ at safety.
At corner are Zambeck and Noah Nelson. Both made big plays during last week’s win. Zambeck made the aforementioned first contact on the walk-off defensive stop. Nelson blocked an extra-point kick, preventing Rockford from taking a 7-6 lead. The game went into overtime tied at 6.