CONYERS - The biggest momentum-changing play of Friday's game between Salem and St. Pius was, of all things, an inadvertent whistle.
Early in the second quarter, Salem punter Cody Davis lofted a punt out to near midfield, where St. Pius' Matt Pierce muffed the football. Dacquery Robertson recovered the ball around the St. Pius 49 and took off down the sideline, eventually being pushed out of bounds inside the 10.
Since it was a muff, the ball would have been returned to the 49.
However, one of the referees blew an inadvertent whistle, which was clearly audible in the press box, while Pierce was catching the ball. Instead of a Salem first down inside St. Pius territory, the Seminoles had to punt the ball again.
"(The call) was an inadvertent whistle, and it was an inadvertent whistle," Salem coach Chad Estes said. "In a playoff game, you never want an inadvertent whistle. Who knows what might have happened (without it)? I know it came at a critical time in the game for us. There was still a lot of game left, but you can't go back. It happened."
At worst, the mistake cost Salem its best scoring chance of the night.
At the least, the Seminoles missed a chance to flip the field on St. Pius.
Field position was a problem all night for the Seminoles, whose average start for a drive was their own 22. In comparison, the Golden Lions started at their own 44.
"We just could not flip the field, we could never do it the whole game," Salem offensive coordinator Jeff Blount said. "We were going 80 or 90 yards every time, and they were only going 50."
First down the difference
Salem offensive coordinator Jeff Blount pointed to limited success on first down as the reason for Salem's offensive struggles in the game.
The Seminoles managed just 90 total yards offensively, 50 rushing and 40 passing.
"We knew that first down was going to be a big play for us. Whenever we got positive yards on first down, we were moving the sticks," he said. "When we got into second-and-10 and second-and-12, it really knocked down our game. We're trying to Terrance (Davis) and JoJo (Smith) at quarterback, and we never got into a good rhythm. Every time we did get into a good rhythm, we had a turnover."
Just a matter of time
Salem's biggest fear before the game turned out to be reality.
St Pius' midline option dominated the time of possession and kept the Salem offense off the field.
The Golden Lions held the ball for 30 minutes and 56 seconds. Salem had the ball for just 17:04 and 6:05 of that time came in the third quarter.
"The time of possession was way skewed (in their favor)," Blount said. "I was counting our plays before that last series and we had only 34. They controlled the clock by running that midline option at us."
St. Pius ran 56 offensive plays to Salem's 40.
"You fear getting behind a team like that," Estes said. "If we could have gotten ahead, I think we're in a little better situation. But when you get behind a team that does a real good job of running the football, it makes it tough on you."
Salem running back Alex Miller finished the game with 24 yards rushing, two short of a 1,000-yard season. ... Linebacker Alex Wilson had 14 total tackles for the Seminoles, while defensive end Zach Roddenberry chipped in nine tackles and two sacks. ... The Seminoles are now 4-4 all-time in the postseason, 2-2 in the first round and 4-2 in games played in the county.
Jeff Gillespie can be reached at email@example.com.