SALEM 24, EARLE 20
Although it was Senior Night at Greyhound Stadium Oct. 28, a junior proved to be the guiding light on this night as the Salem Greyhounds used a punishing rushing attack to knock off the Earle Bulldogs 24-20 in 3AA Conference action.
The Hounds' ground game was clicking on all cylinders, with junior fullback Zack Harber stepping to the forefront for Salem by carrying the football 21 times for 162 yards.
And while Earle (6-4, 5-4 in 3AA) is also known for its ground game, featuring a stable of quick backs running a host of misdirection plays out of a double-wing set, the Greyhounds (3-6, 3-3) chewed up yards by running off tackle, taking advantage of their outstanding offensive line.
The Bulldogs left little doubt in the confidence of their offense, as Earle opened the game with an attempted onsides kick. This ploy failed, and Salem, much as it would all night, enjoyed a short field to work with, taking the ball at the Earle 48-yard line.
Salem made it to the Bulldog 28, but turned the ball over on downs after an incomplete pass on fourth-and-6.
The Bulldogs' first offensive series also ended on downs as, after an intentional grounding penalty, Earle was faced with a fourth-and-32 from its own 45. Rolling the dice, the Bulldogs tried to convert, but Thomas Cooper dropped Colton McGinnis well short of a first down.
While the remainder of the first period was played on Earle's side of the field, the game was scoreless heading into the second frame.
Earle did break a big run at the end of the first period and began the second with the ball at the Greyhound 11-yard line.
A pair of big defensive plays, one by Derek Estes and one by Richard Crowe, kept the Bulldogs out of the end zone, giving the ball back to Salem at its own 6-yard line on downs.
However, the Hounds didn't hang onto the ball long, as McGinnis picked off Salem quarterback Chad Willett to set up Earle's first score of the night.
Two plays later, Bulldog quarterback Steven Meredith dove across the goal line to give Earle the lead. Donald Ward carried the ball in for the 2-point conversion to give the Bulldogs an 8-0 advantage.
Earle tried another squib kick, but Kevin Fowler fell on the ball at midfield to set up the Hounds' first points of the night.
Marching 50 yards in nine plays, Salem hit paydirt on fourth-and-9 as Willett hit Wes James with a 19-yard touchdown pass at the 6:58 mark of the second. The 2-point conversion was stopped, and Earle remained on top 8-6.
James came up big on the defensive side of the ball on Earle's next series by picking off Meredith near midfield.
Wasting little time, Harber, the workhorse of the night for the Hounds, busted loose for a 49-yard run that took the ball to the Bulldog 6-yard line.
Two plays later, Harber bashed his way into the end zone to push Salem in front with 1:20 left until the half. The 2-point conversion was again stopped, but Salem led 12-8.
With just over a minute until intermission, the Greyhounds nearly struck for another score.
A low line drive on the ensuing kickoff bounced off an Earle player, giving Salem the ball back at its own 45.
It took the Hounds six plays to move the ball to Earle's 42-yard line, where on third-and-18, Willett uncorked a long throw to Dustin Vaughn in heavy traffic. Vaughn out-leaped two Bulldog defenders and came down with the ball at the 10-yard line as the buzzer sounded, sending the teams to the half with Salem in front by four points.
Salem stretched its lead to 10 points in the third period on a drive that began in Bulldog territory thanks to a big play on defense by Cooper.
The Bulldogs tried once again to convert on fourth down, but Cooper stopped Meredith short, giving Salem the ball on downs at the Bulldog 49.
Using a steady stream of runs from Harber and sophomore fullback Blake Hurst, the Greyhounds headed toward the end zone. Hurst also had a good night running the football, racking up 63 yards on 12 carries.
Willett dove across the goal line from a yard out at the 5:28 point of the third, pushing Salem in front 18-8.
Earle answered back with a five-play drive that ended when Meredith plunged into the end zone on first-and-goal with 3:44 left in the third period. The 2-point conversion was denied, and Salem kept control with an 18-14 lead after three.
The Bulldogs swiped the lead with one of the few big plays they mustered on the night, a screen pass to Eric Cox that went for a 51-yard touchdown four plays into the final period. Earle was stopped short on the 2-point try, but the Bulldogs had managed to pull on top 20-18, with 10:28 left in the game.
It looked as though this might be it for the Hounds, as after a three-and-out series, the Bulldogs got the football and marched to the Salem 17-yard line looking to add to their margin.
After a pair of costly penalties pushed Earle back to the Greyhound 27, James proved to be Johnny-on-the-spot once again for the Hounds, as he recorded his second turnover for Salem, this time by falling on a Meredith fumble to give the ball back to his team.
The Greyhounds then put together their most impressive drive of the season, moving the ball 77 yards in 12 plays to overtake Earle.
On second-and-8 from the Bulldog 13, Willett outran the left side of the Earle defense for the go-ahead score with 1:18 left in the game. The PAT was no good, but the Hounds had managed to grab a 24-20 lead.
Willett made sure the Bulldogs had no plans on a comeback by picking off Meredith to seal the deal with 12 seconds left on the clock, preserving the Hounds' four-point victory over Earle.