With loss, Hounds locked into third place in conference; earn trip to playoffs
Every week teams spend a large amount of practice time devoted to this basic premise: see the ball carrier, hit the ball carrier and bring down the ball carrier. Sounds simple, right?
However, as with most things, this is easier said than done.
Just ask the Salem Greyhounds.
Hosting the East Poinsett County Warriors, currently ranked number three in the Class AA ranks, in a battle for the top spot in the 3AA Conference Nov. 4, the Greyhounds found out just how difficult this fundamental task could be.
Brandon Sturdivant, EPC's bruising tailback sensation, ran through, over and around Salem's defense to the tune of 298 yards on 25 carries, as the Warriors remained spotless on the season and grabbed the 3AA's top seed in the Class AA playoffs with a 58-25 win over the Greyhounds.
With the loss, Salem (6-3, 4-2) falls to the third slot in the conference, behind EPC and Earle. The Hounds travel to Harding Academy (9-1, 7-1 6AA) for the first round of the playoffs, while the Warriors (7-0, 6-0 6AA) are slated to play host to the Barton Bears (6-3, 5-3 6AA).
Going into the showdown for conference supremacy, EPC's offense had received the lion's share of the publicity surrounding the Warriors, and rightfully so, since they were putting up a shade under 40 points per game on the season. But EPC's defense has been every bit as stout, allowing just over 4 points per contest to their opponents.
And while the Greyhounds shattered that average by posting 25 points, the Warrior's defense was still on duty, as EPC turned a 10-point advantage early in the third quarter into a runaway victory by holding the Hounds without a first down in the second half of play.
The tone was immediately set after the opening kickoff, as EPC used four plays to move 63 yards for the game's first score.
Sturdivant scored the first of his four touchdowns on offense at the 10:53 mark of the first on an 11-yard run. Jose Delgado booted the extra point to give the Warriors a 7-0 lead and keep their streak of never having trailed in a game this year alive.
Heading into the final week of play, EPC quarterback Spencer Harston (nine-of-21, 178 yards) had only thrown three interceptions on the season, but by game's end, his total picks doubled.
Salem's Chad Willett picked off Harston from his spot in the defensive backfield, the first of Willett's two interceptions for the game, to stop EPC on their next series from scrimmage.
While this halted the Warriors for the moment, they got back on track with another score at the 4:09 mark of the first.
On second-and-10 from their own 35, Ked Madden (seven catches, 122 yards) went the distance with a TD run up the middle of the field. Delgado's PAT gave the Warriors a quick 14-0 lead.
Facing a deficit was not exactly new territory for the Greyhounds, as they have demonstrated an ability to fight back all year long.
On the Hounds' next series, Willett jetted 59 yards on a quarterback keeper, taking the ball to the EPC 10-yard line.
One play later, Salem had its first points of the game thanks to a 10-yard touchdown from Mike Innis. John Arrington connected on the PAT, and with 3:30 left in the first, the score was EPC 14, Salem 7.
The Warriors' offensive machine was just getting warmed up thanks to Eric Campbell. Campbell wrapped up a seven-play, 65-yard drive with a 15-yard TD carry with 1:01 left in the first. Delgado kicked his third extra point to extend EPC's lead to 21-7 after one.
Salem has also been blessed with quick-strike talent this year, and it was on display early in the second.
Willett hooked up with Innis on a 21-yard touchdown pass just two minutes into the fame. Arrington's PAT was blocked, but the Hounds drew closer, down 21-13.
The Greyhounds got their hands back on the ball almost instantly as Willett picked off Harston for the second time on the night, but Salem failed to take advantage of this, fumbling the football right back to EPC.
The Warriors had no problems cashing in on this opportunity.
Keun Joplin caught a 40-yard strike from Harston and found the end zone for the Warriors. Delgado's extra point extended EPC's margin to 28-13 with 9:34 left until the half.
Joplin also flashed some defensive ability, as he picked off Willett from his defensive back slot on Salem's next turn on offense.
With another Sturdivant touchdown late in the second, EPC moved in front 35-13 and looked as though they were in complete control.
The Greyhounds, however, had other plans.
Innis took a pitch from Willett and hit Kyle Estes on a halfback pass for a 12-yard TD with 13 ticks left until intermission. Arrington's PAT was no good, but the Greyhounds got much needed points right before the break.
Innis ended the first half of play by picking off Harston, helping to keep the Warriors from adding to their 35-19 lead.
Although they did give up 35 points in the first half, the momentum was squarely in Salem's corner beginning the second half, due to their late score and big defensive stop before halftime.
"We really felt like we were in it until the fourth quarter," said Greyhound Head Coach Wayne Guiltner. "The kids were into the game, and so were the coaches."
Salem parlayed this feeling into points on the scoreboard midway into the third period.
Dustin Vaughan intercepted Harston, setting the Greyhounds up with a short field to work with.
After a couple of carries by Lynn Harber, Willett (nine-of-20, 158 yards) tossed the ball to Phillip Taylor on a screen pass, and Taylor did the rest, sprinting 40 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown at the 7:24 mark of the third. The 2-point conversion was stopped, but the Greyhounds trailed only by 10, 35-25.
Delgado tacked on a 35-yard field goal to boost EPC's lead to 38-25 after three.
The fourth quarter was all about Brandon Sturdivant.
Seemingly getting stronger the more he carried the ball, Sturdivant bounced off and ran through arm tackles by the Greyhounds, as the Warriors made sure Salem got no closer in the last 12 minutes of play.
Sturdivant crossed the goal line from 14 yards out on the first play of the fourth, and Delgado's PAT pushed EPC in front 45-25.
As it turned out, Sturdivant was just getting started.
He picked off Willett on Salem's next offensive possession, and after a few carries when the Warriors took control of the ball after the turnover, he plunged into the end zone from 2 yards out with 6:58 left in the game. Delgado missed his only PAT of the evening, but EPC had put considerable distance between itself and Salem, up 51-25.
As easy he made things look on the offensive side of the ball, Sturdivant showed why is being looked at by a number of Division I schools as a defensive back when he picked off a Willett pass and ran it back 60 yards for the game's final score at the 5:05 mark of the fourth to set the final margin at 58-25, EPC.
"It really should have been a one- or two-touchdown game," Guiltner said of the game's final margin. "But it kind of got out of hand for us in the fourth quarter. We had to make some adjustments that we don't normally do, and they took advantage of that."