If you’d have told Joe Palka that Saline’s defense would give 263 yards of offense and 14 points while forcing four turnovers in their 2017 season opener against Rockford, he’d likely have told you that Saline would have won the game.
Instead, to the surprise of Palka and many in attendance in the opening “Battle of the Big House” at the University of Michigan Stadium, Saline lost, 14-0.
“I guess nothing really surprises me too much in football, but no, I never expected a defensive struggle, which is what we saw today,” Palka said.
It was the first time Saline was shut out since Oct. 13, 2006, when the Hornets lost 41-0 to South Lyon. The shutout is even more startling considering the way Palka’s teams have piled up points over the last five years.
“We never broke a big play on them and that’s a credit in part to their defense, but also, we had opportunities where we had drops or we were just a cut away. Part of that is that all these guys have been in that situation before. Hopefully that’s something we can correct,” Palka said. “We’re not as fast as we’ve been in the past so we’ve got to finish drives that go the length of the field. We had that first one that didn’t finish. That hurts us.”
Rockford’s Ian Rodriguez rushed for a 24-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter and Jason Whittaker threw a 59-yard touchdown to Eli Haddad in the fourth quarter.
Palka said he was proud of his team’s effort.
“I thought our kids played really hard. We’re banged up. We’re a little off right now. You can see some of the inexperience coming through,” he said. “I told the team I’m very proud of them. It could be like 2014 when we lost the first game of the year.”
In 2014, Saline lost their opening game to Mona Shores, 31-28. The Hornets never lost another game that year – until falling in the state championship game against Clarkston at Ford Field.
“We just have to keep getting better,” Palka said.
Saline’s offense looked efficient early in the game. QB Cole Daniels (21 of 39, 153 yards) completed a couple of passes to J Drew McGovern and Brendan Munday (17 carries, 48 yards) rushed for a first down. After a holding penalty, Daniels passed to Vinnie Patteri for 15 yards and Emmett Turner for seven yards. On 4th-and-1, Munday gained two yards to move the chains. On the next play, Munday broke free for a 26-yard gain for a first down at the Rockford 26. Daniels threw to Andrew Diuble (9 catches, 62 yards) for seven yards on first down, putting the Hornets into the red zone. The drive sputtered there. On 4th-and-6, JT Turner’s 39-yard field goal attempt was wide and the Hornets 6:55 drive came up empty.
Unfortunately for the Hornets, they lost McGovern to injury on the first possession.
“We got dinged up and we were down to Diuble for a while there,” Palka said. “The reality is, we weren’t able to hit the home run today – that’s kind of been our trademark. We had a lot of offense, but it wasn’t enough to stretch it vertically and finish. That’s something we have to address and figure out how to do it with the players that we have.”
Saline’s defense came up big on the next possession. Rockford moved the chains once. On the next sequence, on 3rd-and-10, CJ Gildersleeve and Ethan Collick dropped Maliq Thompson for a one-yard loss. When Rockford punted, a swarm of Hornets broke through the line. The punt was blocked by Ethan Collick and Jack Loveland finally recovered the loose ball for Saline.
It was a sign of things to come from the Saline defense.
““Those guys played great. They can run and they play physical. What a confidence boost for the defense today,” Palka said. “We gave up one score – and it was a reverse that got them down there. And then we gave up the late big play that just got behind us. Other than that, we caused turnovers and did a lot of positive things defensively.”
The Hornet offense took over at the Rockford 23 but couldn’t move the ball. Daniels was sacked for an 11-yard loss on first down. A pass intended for Jack Loveland along the sidelines was incomplete – as Loveland was pushed away from the ball in midair. Daniels dropped back to pass on third down but saw no one open, and ran for two yards before he was dropped. The Hornets went for it on 4th-and-19 from the 32. Daniels’ pass to Emmett Turner in the end zone glanced off the outstretched fingertips of Turner’s right hand on the first play of the second quarter.
“We’re down there and we have a turnover on downs, we miss a field goal down there. On fourth down we don’t make the right read. So those things happen and they’re all correctable,” Palka said. “For us to be really good we have to finish drives and score points.”
Rockford took over at the 32. It looked like Saline might force a 3-and-out after tackles by Ethan Collick (5.5 tackles, 1 TFL) and CJ Gildersleeve (7.5 tackles, .5 TFL). But on 4th-and-1, Rockford went for it and Austin Klein gained four yards. Rockford moved the ball into Saline territory with a pass interference call. A couple plays later, Rockford gained another first down at the Saline 27. From there, Rodriguez ran a sweep around the outside and scored on a long touchdown run. After the extra point, it was 7-0, Rockford, with 5:46 to play in the half.
Saline’s next drive started at the 20. Saline picked up one first down and then faced another 4th-and-1. This time Daniels converted with a two-yard run to the Saline 42. Three incomplete passes later, the Hornets punted.
Rockford took over at their 27 with 1:22 to play in the half. Two plays later, linebacker Connor Terech intercepted a pass along the Rockford Skyline.
Saline had the ball again at their 47 with 36 seconds remaining in the half.
After two incomplete passes, Daniels passed to Turner (8 catches, 62 yards) for a 13-yard gain. Two plays later, Daniels connected with Turner on the sideline for a first down at the 29. Saline took one more shot at the end zone. Again, it was Daniels to Turner, but Turner was well covered.
Saline kicked off to Rockford to start the second half.
On the first play from scrimmage, Alex Morrison intercepted Whittaker’s pass along the Saline sideline. The Hornets took over at the Rockford 32. Munday gained three yards on first down. Daniels passed to Diuble for three yards on second down. Daniels was nearly sacked and threw the ball away on third down. On fourth day, with nobody open, Daniels tucked it in but only gained a yard.
Rockford took over at their 25. Collick dropped Klein for a loss on first down. Whittaker gained a couple yards on a keeper on second down. A third down pass attempt was incomplete under the watchful eye of cornerback MJ Griffin. Rockford punted.
Saline took over at their 35. On first down Daniels threw to Diuble for a 14-yard pick up. Two plays later, Daniels passed to Diuble for an 11-yard gain to the Rockford 40. The drive stalled there. Daniels and Munday each ran for three yards. A third down pass was incomplete and Munday lost a yard on 4th-and-4.
Saline’s defense answered the call again on the next Rockford drive. On 2nd-and-8, Daniel Weidmayer’s shoestring tackle prevented Whittaker from breaking a huge run. CJ Gildersleeve stopped Klein for no gain on 3rd-and-1. But on 4th-and-1, Klein ran past the marker. On the next sequence, though, the defense stopped Rockford. On 3rd-and-4, Bradley Feldkamp tacked Thompson for a one-yard loss. Rockford punted from Saline’s 46.
It was a great one. Saline started at its own two-yard line. Passes to Turner and Diuble gave Saline a first down at the Rockford 18. After a couple runs and an offside penalty, Daniels converted another 3rd-and-1 on the ground. Munday moved the chains with tough run on 3rd-and-2. Saline got out to midfield and faced a 4th-and-4. The Hornets faked the punt and Munday ran for seven yards. But the drive sputtered and Patteri punted on 4th-and-11 from the Rockford 47. It was a great punt that was originally spotted at the two before officials moved it back to the seven.
The Rams quick found breathing room. Whittaker pitched to Thompson for an 18-yard pickup on first down. Whittaker ran for seven yards on the next play. Klein followed with a nine-yard run.
On the next play, Haddad got behind the defense and Whittaker found him for a 59-yard touchdown with 8:39 to play. After the extra point, Rockford led 14-0.
MJ Griffin finally got a chance to return a kick and he went 25 yards to the Saline 45. After a first-down pass to Turner, Daniels’ long pass attempt for Diuble was picked off by Haddad at the Rockford 21 with 7:12 to play.
Saline’s defense gave the Hornets once last shot. Griffin and Cam Richardson popped the ball loose after a first down catch by Chase Novak. Griffin recovered. Saline had the ball at its 44 with 4:27 to play.
After a couple of short gains, the Hornets turned the ball over on downs. Rockford got the ball left with 3:12 to play and ran down the clock.
Saline hosts Mumford at 7 p.m. Friday at Hornet Stadium.
“Mumford is a fast team from the PSL. I like our defensive speed right now. We have to do more offensively. We’re going to be more of a possession team this year and not the explosive team we’ve been in the past. We’re going to have to manufacture points,” Palka said.
Mancino's Pizza and Grinders 3 Stars
- CJ Gildersleeve – Looked like a man among boys at times. He led the team with 7.5 tackles, according to Saline Football’s official stats – but that seemed low. As coach Palka said, he played like a Division 1 player, providing leadership and strength all game.
- Connor Terech – The junior linebacker had five tackles and an interception.
- Alex Morrison – The sophomore safety made 2.5 tackles and picked off a pass.