What: Belleville (7-2) vs. Saline (9-0), MHSAA Pre-district football game.
When: 7 p.m., Friday.
Where: Hornet Stadium.
What’s at stake: The winner plays Northville or Canton for the district championship, the loser’s season comes to an end.
History: Saline has 3-0 record against Belleville since 1950, according to Michigan-football.com.
Last Matchup: Saline defeated Belleville 35-3 in 2013, when today’s seniors were freshmen.
Obviously, a lot has changed since Saline routed a 6-3 Belleville team, 35-3, in the opening round of the playoffs in 2013.
Coach Jermaine Crowell is building a program that’s attracting all kinds of talent. According to 247Sports.com, 10 players from the Tigers will visit Michigan State this weekend when the Spartans host the Wolverines. Among the athletes attracting attention from D1 college programs are sophomore offensive tackle Devontae Dobbs, sophomore wide receiver Julian Barnett, sophomore defensive end Jalen Hunt, junior defensive end Jalen Hunt, junior defensive back Davion Williams, junior wide receiver Devin Alverson, and senior safety Jordan Ulmer.
Saline head coach Joe Palka said the Tigers are the real deal. He said the defense is the strength of the Tigers. Palka was impressed with the secondary.
“Their secondary is a tall group. Their safeties love to come downfield and they’re aggressive run stoppers. Safety Jordan Ulmer is one guy who is getting offers from all over the place,” Palka said. “They’re going to have man coverage on the outside and challenge you to come over the middle.”
For Saline, the strategy key to beating the defense will sound familiar.
“We’ve got to stay patient, give them a lot of looks and use tempo to play in our favor,” Palka said. “They’re an athletic group. They’re going to stop us sometimes. We have to stay patient and understand that and then pick our spots and take advantage of opportunities.”
Saline’s offense has been firing on all cylinders. Playing behind a strong offensive line, which might be the most improved group on the team, QB Zach Schwartzenberger his having an incredible season. He’s completed 102 of 125 passes (81.6 percent) for 1,422 yards and 13 touchdowns. He hasn’t been picked off since week two. Over the last three weeks he’s completed 39 of 43 passes for 512 yards and four TDs. He’s also had two of his best rushing performances in the last two weeks.
Schwartzenberger’s favorite targets are D1 commit TE Bryce Wolma (33 catches, 496 yards, 15.3 avg., 4 TDs) and junior Andrew Diuble (31 catches. 346 yards, 11.2 avg. 2 TDs). Emmett Turner and Nate Gresser have also caught touchdown passes.
At running back, Connor Hibbard is having a monster season for someone who’s usually on the sideline resting by the second series of the third quarter. He’s rushed 107 times for 1,005 yards (10.5 yards per carry) and 19 touchdowns. He’s scored three touchdowns in each of the last three games.
On offense, the Tigers are run the spread. Quarterback Jahz Watts, a senior, has a talented crew of tall and athletic receivers to throw to (notably, 6’2 Julian Barnett and Jalen Wallace). Palka said the Tigers use an assortment of running backs.
“They don’t have a long of long, time-eating drives. They have a couple base plays and then they break a huge run, or a screen pass for a big gain or a fade into the corner of the end zone,” Palka said. “A lot of teams try to blitz them and that plays in their favor. They kick it outside and break long plays. We’ll have to be disciplined to avoid those big plays.”
Palka has every confidence in his defense, which gave up just 92 points this year.
The Hornet defense is led by senior DE Sean O’Keefe (24 tackles, 1 INT, 2 sacks), DT Nathan Powers (26 tackles, six tackles for a loss), LB CJ Gildersleeve (37 tackles) and CB Robbie Felton (27 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss).
Both teams can put up points, Saline averaged 39.1 points a game (43.75 if you remove the forfeit victory) and Belleville scored 28.4 points a game. But Palka said he believes this game could be a defensive struggle that goes down to the wire.
“It might be a lower scoring game than everyone thinks. Their defense reminds me of the Pioneer defense and our defense has been playing very well. It would not surprise me to see a low scoring game,” Palka said.