Hounds remain in chase for title, knock off pre-season favorites
There's nothing like being in the driver's seat instead of just along for the ride.
And the driver's seat was just exactly what the Salem Greyhounds were in heading into their Oct. 22 matchup with the Cross County Thunderbirds at Greyhound Stadium.
By virtue of winning their first three 3AA Conference games, the Hounds had put themselves into position to play for the outright district crown. But in order to make this happen, Salem needed to take care of the remaining business at hand; knock off the T-Birds, ranked by many as pre-season 3AA favorites, before turning to Earle and East Poinsett County in the season's last two weeks.
Salem can check step number one off its to-do list, as the Hounds came up with big plays on both sides of the ball to knock off Cross County 26-20.
The game had a little bit of everything. The aforementioned big plays. Turnovers returned for touchdowns. Controversial calls. A lengthy game-winning drive.
The Greyhounds (6-1, 4-0) were in control with a 20-12 lead heading into the fourth quarter when the T-Birds showed just why they were tabbed the pre-season pick as conference champs.
Starting at their own 33, Cross County moved downfield and hit paydirt 10 plays later thanks to an 11-yard touchdown run from Robby Morelock with 6:58 left in the game. T-Bird quarterback Dylan Karns hit Patrick Jones in the back of the end zone to knot the game at 20-all.
Much as it has been all year long, resiliency proved to be an ally in the Greyhounds' corner.
Salem took the ensuing kickoff at its own 20 looking for an answer to the T-Birds' score.
It looked like the Hounds had found an answer when Chad Willett rolled out and hit Kyle Estes across the middle of the field for a 31-yard touchdown. However, the play was negated when the Greyhounds were called for an apparent chop-block on the play, the second time the Hounds had been whistled for such an infraction in the game. But it wasn't the last. On the very next play from scrimmage, Willett found Matt Arnold for a nice gainer down near the T-Bird goal line, but it too was called back because of a perceived illegal block.
Instead of giving in, the Greyhounds then geared up.
Willett once again found Estes down the middle of the field, and he made a diving grab at the Cross County 5-yard line.
Four plays later, Phillip Taylor took a handoff from Willett and dove into the end zone from a yard out on fourth-and-goal to notch the go-ahead TD for Salem. John Arrington's PAT was blocked, leaving the Hounds up by only 6 points, and leaving the T-Birds with 3:20 to climb back on top.
Enter the Greyhound defense.
Salem kept Karns from completing a pass on the T-Birds' next series from scrimmage, giving the ball back to the Greyhounds, who held on for a huge conference win.
That was not the only time the Greyhound defense proved its worth in the game.
On Cross County's first possession of the game, they had marched deep into Salem's side of the field and were looking at second-and-goal from the 8.
Karns attempted a deep pitch to Kendole Boykin, but Estes was also in the backfield and knocked the ball to the ground and fell on it to snuff out points for the T-Birds.
The first quarter ended in a scoreless draw, but Cross County struck in the second quarter with a play reminiscent of Estes' batted ball for the Greyhounds.
At his own 41-yard line, Willett attempted to pitch the football to Taylor, but Jones got his mitts on it, knocking it straight up in the air. He then ran under it and didn't stop until he found Salem's end zone 40 yards later for the first TD of the night with 5:37 left until the half. The extra point was no good, but Cross County led 6-zip.
After another turnover by the Hounds on their next series, Salem's defense held Cross County in check, as Lonny Brown and Thomas Cooper ganged up on Karns, sacking him on fourth-and-4 at Salem's 41-yard line.
This seemed to rev up the Greyhound offensive machine, because one play later, Willett tossed a screen pass to Taylor and he sprinted 56 yards down the right sideline for Salem's first TD of the night with 1:43 remaining until intermission. Arrington booted the PAT to give the Greyhounds a 7-6 lead.
This score stood until Salem touched the ball for the first time in the third quarter. On their second play from scrimmage in the second half, Willett found Mike Innis in stride and hit him for a 59-yard TD down the right sideline with 10:53 showing on the third quarter clock. Arrington's extra point made it Salem 14, Cross County 6.
The T-Birds wasted little time in finding the end zone for the second time on the evening, using a 13-play, 63-yard drive to put points on the board. Aaron Bowles crossed the goal line at the 4:07 mark to help the T-Birds keep pace.
However, the T-Birds needed a 2-point conversion to tie the game at 14-all. A costly holding penalty on the attempt pushed the ball back to the 15-yard line as Cross County went for 2 points again. Derek Estes broke through to wrap up Karns, denying the all-important conversion, and leaving Cross County down 14-12.
The Hounds had a little bit of third-quarter juice left as Willett turned a quarterback keeper into a 67-yard touchdown run on Salem's next offensive series. Willett found a hole in the line and when he hit the secondary, he turned on the jets to pad Salem's lead at 20-12 with 2:58 left in the third.