CONYERS - After nine weeks, the Salem Seminoles are exactly where they wanted to be at the start of the season - one win away from the Region 8-AAAA South title.
Senior Alex Miller rushed for 116 yards and three touchdowns as the Seminoles (7-1 overall, 4-0 8-AAAA South) held on for a 26-19 victory over county rival Heritage (2-6, 0-4) on Friday night at Evans Memorial Stadium.
The victory sets up a showdown with Cedar Shoals next Friday at Evans Memorial Stadium for the subregion title and a No. 1 seed in the Region 8-AAAA playoff.
"Our kids had to realize that Heritage has played everybody close. You can't just look at their record, they've played everybody tough," Salem coach Chad Estes said. "It's tough (for us) coming off Rockdale and to turn around and play Heritage, and for us, now it's Cedar next. We're playing for the subregion championship, so it's a tough part of the schedule. But I told our kids we have to get up every week. I'm proud of them; they are a fun group.
"I'm really excited. That's seven in a row for us. I know Cedar Shoals is going to bring a big, talented bunch down here next Friday. We've got to have fans turn out for us next week. We need that 12th man against that bunch."
Miller's strong running and JoJo Smith's pinpoint passing forged a 14-6 lead in the first half.
The Seminoles jumped ahead 14-0 with a pair of time-consuming 14-play drives. On the first march, Miller scored on a 7-yard run at 3:08 of the first quarter, capping off an 83-yard drive that chewed 7:40 off the clock.
On the next series, Smith flashed his passing skills, hooking up with Sam Ahonen for a 13-yard touchdown strike at 6:37 of the second quarter. This time, Salem marched 57 yards and burned 7:22 off the clock.
During the two drives, Smith connected on all five of his passing attempts for 73 yards. Ahonen was his favorite target, with three catches for 52 yards.
"Alex Miller has really picked up the slack (since Terrance Davis' injury)," Estes said. "But I'm going to tell you what, our little quarterback (Smith) has come in there and done a great job. In the first half, he made a lot of big plays."
Heritage's offense finally got on track in the second quarter after gaining just a yard in the first. The Patriots picked up their initial first down of the game on Mike Hunter's 21-yard catch with 5:40 left in the half.
After a pair of 15-yard penalties against Salem, Heritage quarterback Kenny Seabolt hit Zach Cheek in the right flat for a 4-yard touchdown pass on fourth down with 2:10 left in the second quarter.
In the third quarter, Tyrel Wellington set up Salem's first score with an interception and an 8-yard return to the Heritage 35. Miller capped off the drive with a 2-yard run to give the Seminoles a 20-6 lead at 9:23.
But Heritage answered the challenge with a little improvisation from Seabolt, who rolled to his right and lofted a pass down the sideline that Garry Peters ran under for a 39-yard touchdown reception, cutting the deficit to 20-13 at 6:25.
In fact, the Patriots had a chance to tie the game when Michael McKerson recovered a Miller fumble at the Heritage 42. But the Patriots failed to capitalize on the turnover.
Heritage coach Chad Frazier felt that was a critical point in the game.
"We didn't do anything with that turnover (after we scored) in the second half. I felt like that stymied us a little bit," he said. "When they turned it over about midfield and we didn't get anything out of it, it was a big letdown. We've got to run routes and catch the football. We just have to make more plays."
In the fourth quarter, Salem appeared to put the game out of reach with its third long touchdown drive of the game. Miller scored on a 3-yard run to culminate a 10-play, 83-yard drive with 7:43 left in the game.
However, the teams traded the ball back and forth on four straight turnovers during a stretch of 3:41.
The Patriots were the only team to take advantage of a turnover, the last one, in fact, as Seabolt fired his third touchdown pass of the game, hitting Hunter from 28 yards with 2:46 left in the contest.
Down 26-19, the Patriots tried for the onside kick and were unsuccessful. The Seminoles picked up one key first down to ice the victory and even the all-time series between the two schools at 7-7.
Jeff Gillespie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.