Canton stuns No. 2 Saline in Division 1 regional final

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Saline — Canton pulled off a major upset and did it in dominating style Friday night with a 27-7 win over No. 2 Saline in a Division 1 regional football championship.

Canton (10-2) dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage, taking a 20-0 lead on the final play of the third quarter with its second 14-play scoring drive of the night — both coming after fourth-down stops to end Saline scoring threats.

“We wanted their offense and their quarterback to stand on the sideline in this cold weather and watch,” Canton coach Tim Baechler said. “You can talk about that happening and in theory it’s perfect, but we actually did it and that’s awesome.”

Canton was so dominating it headed into the fourth quarter with a 235-56 advantage in total yards and 51-29 edge in plays. And, it stopped Saline’s high-scoring offense, which came into the game averaging 35.5 points behind Virginia Tech-bound quarterback Josh Jackson.

Jackson picked Canton’s defense apart in last year’s 42-35 win in the regional final, completing 27 of 32 passes for 319 yards and four touchdowns and running for 70 yards and two more scores.

But Jackson found yards tough to come by in the long-anticipated rematch. He took a physical beating, sacked three times and hit several times while attempting passes.

“We felt we had to put pressure on (Jackson) and make him feel us, and we went 100 percent man except for a couple of times,” Baechler said after Canton limited Jackson to 8-of-19 passing for 71 yards and a TD with an interception. “We just put pressure and said he’s going to have to throw in a hurry.”

Saline’s lone bright spot was a 38-yard touchdowns pass from Jackson to Mike Monahan that cut the deficit to 20-7 early in the fourth quarter.

Canton quickly answered Saline’s score with one of its own. Junior running back Markus Sanders broke loose for 49 yards and Jared Stephens finished the march with a 9-yard TD run.

Canton amasssed 363 yards rushing with Sanders getting 195 yards on 24 carries, giving him 2,213 for the season. Stephens ran for 116 yards and a touchdown and also intercepted a pass.

“We knew we were going to have to set the tone early because they’re a good team and we knew if we let them stay in the game that eventually they’d get the lead, so we did our best to set the tone on offense and it carried over to defense and our defense stepped up today,” Stephens said.

Said Sanders: “I was thinking about last year’s game and it was emotional and we weren’t about to let it happen twice in a row. We had to get it done this time.”

In the first half, Jackson threw more incompletions (six) than in last year’s entire game, connecting on just 4-of-10 for 5 yards and the interception to Stephens

Canton led 14-0 at halftime, and had a 170-22 advantage in total yards and ran 37 plays to Saline’s 15.

Saline would have entered the locker room with negative yardage if not for runs of 17 and 13 yards on the final series of the second quarter.

To say Saline started out sluggishly would be an understatement. It was forced into two 3-and-outs by a fired-up Canton defense, posting minus-27 yards, then fumbled the punt for what would have been its third possession.

“That was absolutely a tone-setter for our defense and we needed that,” Baechler said.

Canton junior Steve Szymusiak pounced on the loose ball at the Saline 45 and Canton scored four plays later.

Canton, uncharacteristically went up top on the first play with junior quarterback Jake O’Donnell finding Stephens for 17 yards, then Stephens followed with a 24-yard run to the 1 to set up O’Donnell’s score.

Saline, despite being outgained 98 to minus-19 in the opening quarter, had a chance to pull even, but Jackson was hauled down 2 yards short of a first down at the Canton 40 on a fourth-and-four.

Then, Canton used the momentum from the stop, going on a 14-play, 70-yard drive with Sanders breaking loose for runs of 10 and 12 yards. On fourth down, Jacob Wickens scored on a 2-yard run with 2:28 left in the half for a 14-0 cushion.

“It’s not the way we wanted it to go,” said Saline coach Joe Palka. “They did a nice job offensively and they always do. We had probably chances early in the game and we didn’t take advantage of it. We fumbled a punt, had a big penalty, which you can’t do with them because they’re great at possessing the ball.

“Defensively, they did a nice job. They really clogged up the box on us and they did a good job in man coverage. We needed to convert on the fourth downs and we weren’t able to do it.”