There was 2:35 left to play and Pulaski County had forced a punt. It had no timeouts left and took over at its own 46, and almost pulled it out. But Salem got a late interception in the end zone and held on to win, 12-6 and capture home field in Class 4, Region D when the playoffs begin next Friday. The Spartans move to 9-1 on the season, and the Cougars drop to 8-2.
Salem had taken control after a big pass reception late in the third quarter, and had overcome a 6-0 halftime deficit to lead 12-6. That’s when Pulaski Co. got one final opportunity starting at its own 46.
Quarterback A.J. McCloud passed for 13 yards to Keyontae Kennedy who made a great catch for a 13-yard gain. Then McCloud hit Layne Suthers on a crossing pattern for 18 yards to the Salem 23. He connected again on a swing pass to Kennedy for eight to the Salem 15. Kennedy than ran for five, and then he pushed to the Spartan six. The clock was winding down, but not a factor. The Cougars had two plays to score and enough time. But McCloud rolled to his right, looked to have some space, but passed into the back of the end zone trying to connect with Suthers again, but it was late and into double coverage. Shawn Collins picked it off for the Spartans to preserve the huge win.
It was a heartbreaking loss for Pulaski Co. as its defense played great again, but until the final possession, its offense had gone three and out six consecutive possessions. Until the final possession the Cougars had gained less than 100 yards total offense, and until that final possession, the Cougars offense had gained only 31 yards the second half and didn’t have a first down.
Salem had its lowest offensive output of the season with 223 total yards, a surprising four turnovers, and a failed fake punt deep in its own territory, but the Cougar offense could not take advantage.
It was a hugely disappointed Stephen James at games end as the Cougar boss knew his team had let a golden opportunity slip by. “I thought we would be able to move the ball better, but we didn’t get ’em blocked and we missed too many assignments. Still, we gave it a heckuva go, and had a great opportunity to pull it out, but didn’t get it done. We gave ourselves a chance to win at the end. That’s when you make the winning play. We tried, but just didn’t make it.
“The defense played very well again. But they never got much of a rest. We thought it would be a slugfest and it was. We fought ’em all the way. Salem has a good defense too. The touchdown we lost because of a blocking penalty in the first half really hurt. To lead 10-0 in that game would have been big. But the playoffs begin next week. We’re at home. We’re still where we wanted to be. It’s back to work on Monday and get ready,” said James.
Pulaski Co. will be the third seed, just getting edged out for the second seed by E.C. Glass of Lynchburg. The Cougars will have a rematch as they host Blacksburg (6th seed) in Dobson Stadium next Friday at 7 pm. Salem will host 8th seeded Amherst, Glass will host 7th seeded Jefferson-Forest, and fourth seeded Halifax will be at home against fifth seeded GW-Danville.
Salem received the opening kickoff and totally dominated the first quarter. The Cougars got only four snaps in the first quarter and suffered an interception. The Spartans moved the ball to the Cougars 17, then to the 22, and again to the 25, but the Cougar defense would not break.
Then in the second quarter things started going the Cougars way. Isiah Persinger, the Spartans leading rusher was tagged time and again by the Cougar defense, and finally the ball was knocked free and Layne Suthers recovered at the Salem 29. Chris Shay got a nice 11-yard run to the Salem 18 where the possession stopped and Broc Simpson kicked 26-yard field goal to put PCHS up 3-0.
Following the kickoff the Cougar defense stoned the Salem attack again, and surprisingly the Spartans tried a fake punt deep in their own territory, but Ethan Gallimore and Luke Russell were having none of that and make the tackle at the Spartan 20. Kennedy got one run of nine yards to Salem eight, and on third down McCloud rolled to his right and spotted John Lyman alone in the end zone for six, but the call was blocking in the back and it cost the Cougars dearly. Simpson then drilled a 38-yard field goal for a 6-0 halftime lead. Simpson is now 10 of 12 on field goals for the season.
Until the final drive, all Cougar second half possession were three and out. Salem did the same until suddenly on a third down play Hunter Chaney threw long down the right side to a wide open Chuck Farris for 47 yards to the Cougar 18. Tack on a half the distance penalty, and it was first and goal from the nine and then Zavionne Wood blew straight up the gut untouched to score, but a high snap resulted in the point after being stopped and the score was still 6-6.
Salem got good field position immediately as the Cougar offense went three and out at its own 20. Following the punt Salem started at the 49. Wood ran for 11, then 18, and then 33 to the end zone on the same play three straight snaps, but after another botched extra point, the Cougars still trailed by only six, 12-6 with a whole quarter left to play.
But nothing happened until that final drive when the Cougars had their best offensive series of the game, but fell six yards and six points short, and for the 9th year in a row, Salem has defeated Pulaski Co.
The Cougars managed only four first downs in the game, Salem nine. The Spartans finished with 223 total yards, Pulaski Co. 120. The Cougars could only rush for 66 yards on 29 attempts. Salem got 151 on 39 carries. Wood finished with 86 for the Spartans. Shay led the Cougars with 33 yards on nine carries. Chaney was four of 14 passing for 66 yards for Salem and Shay picked him off, but 47 of those yards came on the big play in the third quarter than turned the game. McCloud was nine of 17 passing with two picks for 54 yards with almost all of it coming on the last possession.
Suthers had his fumble recovery, and Ethan Gallimore two. Add Shay’s pick and the Cougar defense has now come up with 22 turnovers on the season.
By DAN CALLAHAN, The Patriot