What: Rockford (7-4) at Saline (10-1)
When: 1 p.m., Saturday (*Correction - Article originally stated the game was Sunday)
What’s at stake: The winner takes the regional trophy and advances to the semifinal against Clarkston (10-2).
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Last Meeting: Rockford Shutout Saline, 14-0, at the University of Michigan on Aug. 25, 2017
All Time Series: 1-1. Saline was credited for a 2-0 record when Rockford forfeited on opening day in 2016.
Common 2018 Opponents: East Kentwood. Saline won 42-7. Rockford lost 28-17.
Other Regional finals: Clarkston 13 West Bloomfield 10, Chippewa Valley 42 Fordson 7, Clarkston 13 West Bloomfield 10.
In some ways, the Saline Hornets are looking in the mirror when they watch the Rockford Rams. Both teams came into the season with a new starting quarterback, a new offensive line and a lot of big shoes to fill. Saline lost on opening night to Chippewa Valley and hasn’t lost since. Rockford lost on opening night and was 1-3 before the Rams turned things around (The Rams snuck into the playoffs with a 5-4 record).
Like Saline, the Rams don’t have a lot of players who are hyped on recruiting websites. (6’5, 295-pound offensive lineman Jonah Erickson is probably getting the most attention).
Like Saline, Rockford owes its success to great coaching and dedication and buy-in from the athletes. Saline has made the playoffs seven straight years since Joe Palka became head coach. At Rockford, the football legacy goes a long way back. Under coach Ralph Munger, the Rams have made the playoffs 24 straight seasons and won three state championships.
These are two the state’s best football programs.
And they’re battling for a regional championship at Hornet Stadium Saturday afternoon. The winner takes the regional trophy and advances to the semifinal against Clarkston next week.
Palka expects a tough game. On offense, the Rams play a Wing-T and love running the draw.
“It’s similar to what Canton runs, but they throw more than Canton. They have a tall receiver (6’6 Drew Bareno) who can make catches in coverage,” Palka said.
Sophomore Chris Corey has won the job at QB. They have several running backs who’ve had big games this year, including Jack Richardson, Jaiden Friesen and Connor White.
“We’ve got to try to make them one-dimensional. If we can stop the trap we can control the game. If they’re able to run the trap, that sets up play action and can make our life difficult,” Palka said.
Rockford will try use the running game to control the clock and keep the Hornet offense off the field.
The Hornet defense is playing with tremendous confidence. Last week they shut down an East Kentwood team that routinely scored 40 or more points. The first-string defense has allowed just three touchdowns in the last seven games.
It starts with a fast and fierce defensive line featuring Brad Wisniewski, Jonah Ashby, Adonis Gammo and Zach Sabin.
Offensively, the Hornets will try to keep the Rams off balance with a lot of different looks and formations.
Last week Andrew Arbaugh (16-21, 287 yards, 3 TDs) threw three TD passes to TE Brendan Murphy (8 rec, 187 yards, 3 TDs), while Brendan Munday rushed 19 times for 86 yards and a TD.
Saline’s dismantling of East Kentwood, ranked fourth in the state, opened a lot of eyes. But coach Palka said the team had a good week of practice and is staying level-headed.
“They guys were excited about the win last week. But we returned to practice with really good focus. They know they’ve got an opportunity to do something special,” Palka said. “They’ve been locked in and focused.”