What: Birmingham Groves (8-0, 4th in AP D2 Poll) at Saline (8-0, 4th in AP D1 poll).
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Hornet Stadium
Student Section: Wearing pink for breast cancer.
History: Since 1950, these teams haven’t met. The head coaches are friends, though. And these teams scrimmaged against each other before the season.
What’s at stake: Both teams are looking for a perfect 9-0 record and home field advantage as deep into the playoffs as possible.
As week nine games go, there might not be a better matchup in Michigan. Saline is 8-0, ranked fourth in Division 1 in the recent AP poll. They’ve won 24 straight regular season games. Birmingham Groves is 8-0, ranked fourth in Division 2 in the recent AP poll. They’ve won 17 straight regular season games.
When Friday’s game is finished, only one team will go into the playoffs with a 9-0 record. But Saline head coach Joe Palka isn’t too worried about that.
“It’s going to be a great football game and a lot of fun. We’ll use this as a barometer to see where we are going into the playoffs. But win or lose, we’re not going to get too high or too low,” Palka said. “It’s a great challenge, but we won’t treat it any differently than any other games. We’re trying to get one week better every week.”
In fact, Palka said, the last game of the season is probably the least-remembered game of the season. (Quick quiz, who did Saline play in week 9 last year?).
“As soon as the game is over, all thoughts turn to the playoffs,” Palka said.
That said, nobody is downplaying Friday’s game.
Coach Joe Palka is friends with Groves head coach Brendan Flaherty and the Groves staff have been excited about this year’s team for a couple years.
“They knew a couple years ago they had a special senior class,” Palka said. After watching the tape, Palka agrees – especially on their defense. The Falcons have three shutouts in their last five games and haven’t given up more than a touchdown in a game since week two.
“They’ve got a great blend of size and speed,” Palka said.
Palka said the Hornets will try to keep the defense off balance.
“We’ve got to give them a lot of different looks and show them more formations than usual and get them to do things they don’t want to do on defense. We need to keep them off balance and tempo them a little,” Palka said.
On offense, Groves running back Ernest Allen can pick up a lot of yards. At QB, the Falcons have experienced QB Beau Kewley who will attend West Point next year. One of his favorite targets is Nate Higley, who is also a threat on returns.
Palka said Groves likes to run right at their opponent and then strike with the play-action pass.
“They like to pound the ball. We need to prove we can stop their run and then prevent the big play,” Palka said.
There were a lot of questions about Saline to start the season. But after surviving tough challenges from Skyline and Bedford, the Hornets are now blowing out opponents. The last two weeks, Saline could have scored 80 or 90 points if it kept its foot on the gas.
The last-minute victory against Skyline seemed to set the tone for Saline.
“Skyline proved to be better than everyone thought, but they were running the ball straight at us late in that game. But we got the ball back, kept fighting and found a way to get it done,” Palka said. “It was a turning point in the season. The team learned to believe in itself.
Zach Schwartzenberger, the senior QB who backed up Josh Jackson last year, converted on a critical 3rd-and-10 on that last drive. Today, Schwartzenberger is playing like a veteran. He’s completed 22 of 25 pass attempts for 321 yards and 3 TDs over the last two weeks. He hasn’t thrown an interception since week two.
Senior Connor Hibbard has run 20 times for 304 yards and seven TDs over the last two weeks – even though he’s been rested in the second half. He’s rushed for 17 TDs this year.
Palka credits the offensive line for giving his playmakers more time and more options.
Defensively, the team played its best game against Monroe on Homecoming night.