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Outcome of game hinges on battle in trenches

CONYERS - There's no secret about which team will win tonight's Class AAAA first-round playoff clash between Salem and St. Pius at Reid Memorial Stadium.

Simply put, the team that wins the battle in the trenches more than likely will prevail on the scoreboard.

The Seminoles (9-1) host the Golden Lions (7-3) tonight at 7:30, and all eyes will be focused on the offensive and defensive fronts of both teams.

"The team that controls the line of scrimmage is going to be hard to beat on Friday night," Salem coach Chad Estes said.

The Golden Lions feature an option attack, and it's something the Seminoles have not seen all season.

"Their offensive line is extremely good. They stand out on film," Estes said. "They are an option football team that does some other things. We have not seen a team run the option like they run it."

Salem's defense, which has surrendered only 9.8 points a game this season, will have to focus on two things in tonight's contest - playing assignment football to stop the option and winning the battle on first and second down.

"First down will be important for our defense," Estes said. "We need to keep them out of third-and-short."

In fact, the best defense against an option team can be a ball-controlling offense.

Since senior quarterback Terrance Davis suffered a hamstring injury against Alcovy five weeks ago, the Seminoles have relied on a balanced offense to carry them to the postseason.

Last week against Madison County in the region playoffs, Salem had scoring drives of 15 and 10 plays. Two weeks ago against Heritage, the Seminoles had two 14-play scoring drives.

"We want to continue to be multiple on offense with runs and passes," Estes said.

Senior Alex Miller has done most of the damage in the ground game and is coming off a 204-yard, three-touchdown effort last week against Madison County. He enters tonight's contest just 26 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season. The senior has also scored 13 touchdowns.

Miller has topped the 120-yard mark in four of his last five games.

Davis, who returned to play in the 28-10 victory over Cedar Shoals two weeks ago that wrapped up the Region 8-AAAA South subregion crown, did not play in last week's 31-11 victory over the Red Raiders. He tweaked his hamstring scoring a touchdown against Cedar Shoals and his status for tonight is questionable, according to Estes.

Backup quarterback JoJo Smith has done admirable job filling for the Mississippi State recruit. Last week, he rushed for over 60 yards and completed two of his three passing attempts, including a 66-yard scoring strike to Dramel Oubre.

In the last five games, whether it's been Davis or Smith at the helm, Salem's offense has generated big passing plays from Sammy Ahonen, Kris Sykes, Corey Shields, Oubre and Miller.

Even with all that firepower, Estes knows ball security will be a key factor tonight for the Seminoles.

"We need to win the turnover battle," he said. "In the playoffs, everybody is good and the team making the fewest mistakes has a great chance to win."

And, if it comes down to a last-second kick, both teams have good kickers. Koy Manget has been very steady all season for the Seminoles, while Chris Philpott is very reliable for the Golden Lions.

Game notes

Tonight's game will be Salem's first playoff game at Reid Memorial Stadium. ... Salem owns a 4-3 all-time record in playoff games, including a 4-1 mark in games played in the county. ...Salem is 49-18 overall since its first playoff season in 2002. ...This is the first playoff game as a head coach for Estes, a Rockdale County native. He was the defensive coordinator when Rockdale qualified for the Class AAA playoffs in 1999 and 2000. ... Since 2000, St. Pius is 5-4 in the playoffs, including a 14-7 loss at Heritage in 2004.

Jeff Gillespie can be reached at jeff.gillespie@rockdalecitizen.com

SideBar: St. Pius X at Salem

When: Today, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Reid Memorial Stadium

Series: St. Pius leads 2-0

Last week: Salem beat Madison County 31-11; St. Pius lost to Marist 21-7

Records: Salem 9-1, St. Pius 7-3