Rockdale shuts out Salem on gridiron

Rockdale’s Tajee Steele breaks free from the Salem defense for a 23-yard touchdown in Friday’s season opener. (Photo: Erin Evans)

Rockdale’s Tajee Steele breaks free from the Salem defense for a 23-yard touchdown in Friday’s season opener. (Photo: Erin Evans)

CONYERS — Rockdale football coach Venson Elder was excited about his team heading into the 2013 season. That feeling shouldn’t change much after what Elder saw in Friday’s opener. Zuri Minnifield ran for a touchdown and passed for another and the Rockdale defense forced five turnovers in a 20-0 victory over Salem at Reid Stadium.

Rockdale (1-0), which is coming off a playoff berth despite a 3-8 season a year ago, will travel to Heritage next week looking to start 2-0 for the first time since 2008. Salem (0-1), a 2-8 team a year ago, will host Wesleyan next weekend.

The Bulldogs were in command late in the game, but after intercepting Salem quarterback Licash Lackey for the third time, and the second time by T.J. Warren, the Bulldogs padded their lead with a late touchdown. First, Minnifield and Joseph Wright connected on a 20-yard pass play to midfield and four players later, Minnifield found a wide-open Akwesi Mintah in the end zone for a 39-yard score that made it a 20-0 game.

“We got some receivers. One word: ‘track.’ That makes the difference,” Elder said of the receivers’ improved speed from running on the school’s track and field team.

For visiting Salem, which had its brief, two-game winning streak against its crosstown rivals snapped, the struggles to hang on to the ball were apparent from the onset. A first quarter fumble by Lackey didn’t hurt, but it was a different story on the following two turnovers.

Rockdale’s Devon Dawkins lifted a high punt towards the sideline that hit Mike Peck in the foot and Anthony Davis of Rockdale recovered. Tajee Steele took over from there.

Steele, who had an excellent finish to the 2012 season, picked up right where he left off last November. On the ensuing play from scrimmage, Steele bounced off an initial hit and found the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown that gave Rockdale a 7-0 lead.

Early in the second, Salem was driving for what looked like at least three points if not the tying score, but Lackey was intercepted by Shakym Peters. The Bulldogs picked up three consecutive false start penalties n the ensuing drive, but converted two big plays — Minnifield hooked up with Terrell McLaughlin for a 19-yard completion and Warren followed with a 20-yard run to set up first-and-goal from the Salem six. After Warren got to the goal line with a six-yard run, Minnifield made it 14-0 with a one-yard touchdown plunge.

“That team is extremely athletic. Very difficult for us to match up with,” Salem coach John Starr said of Rockdale. Reality is, we started nine guys who never played varsity before tonight. I’m still excited.”

The much-improved Rockdale defense, which a season ago allowed an average of over 26 points, including 28 to Salem in the opener, took over from there. Salem collected 33 total yards on its final seven possessions and just 100 for the game, while the Rockdale defense picked up six sacks.

“Defense (has) got a lot of guys back from last year, the guys are hungry,” Elder said. “Speed coming off the corners, weak side tackles. Those guys played a heck of a game. I’m happy for these kids. We’re coming to play. We are coming to play.”

“Bottom line, we never got that good running game going. We’ve got to generate some offense,” said Starr.

Rockdale had a chance to make it a 17-point game just before halftime, but Dawkins’ 41-yard field goal attempt fell just short.