WARDSVILLE — The Salem Tigers changed their look to start the Class 3 District 5 playoffs.
Salem's offense was an under center, I-power formation, and the defense was a 4-4, cover-3 look during the regular season. In last Friday's 30-20 first-round win against School of the Osage, the Tigers lined up in shotgun on offense and went to a 3-3 stack on defense.
Needless to say, the Blair Oaks Falcons are preparing for anything against Salem tonight in the district semifinals at the Falcon Athletic Complex. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
"This year, they've seemed to have turned their season around," Blair Oaks coach Ted LePage said. "They're playing very good football, they don't beat themselves."
Under first-year head coach Dylan Wyrick, the Tigers have turned last season's 3-7 record into a 7-3 record in 2019. Salem has won four of its last five games.
"Whenever you play a team that stays within themselves and plays the way they're capable of, they've got an opportunity every Friday night, and that's what they've done this year," LePage said.
Salem is averaging 22.1 points per game and allowing an average of 21.7. In their three losses — two against state-ranked opponents, Thayer and Ava — the Tigers have been outscored 135-28.
In its season opener, Salem won 32-6 against St. James. Last Friday, Blair Oaks (10-0) opened district play with a 68-7 win against St. James.Salem's offense is led by sophomore quarterback Garrett Connell (6-foot-2, 180 pounds), who has thrown for 1,021 yards with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
"He throws a very crisp, accelerated football," LePage said. "He's got the arm strength."
Junior running back Caden Camden (5-7, 150) has 1,101 yards rushing, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He has scored nine total touchdowns, seven rushing and two receiving.
"He puts his foot in the ground and he's going a different direction at the same speed he was going when he was going in the other direction," LePage said. "It just makes it hard on defenses."
Salem utilizes the tight end on offense. Senior Carter Chilton (6-4, 235) had 10 catches for 105 yards, but he adds another blocker for the Tigers on the line.
"He blocks really well,"
LePage said. "They like to use him in their power run game. They want to set the edge with him."
Junior wide receiver Dawson Mock (5-8, 155) has 27 catches for 560 yards and five touchdowns.
Defensively, senior inside linebacker Brenden Smith (6-0, 185) leads Salem with 85 tackles. LePage compared Smith — who is also an offensive lineman — to California's Garrett Burger, and not just because they wear the same jersey number.
"You just have to be aware of where he's at," LePage said. " He loves to mix it up, he is always around the ball and he's making very good reads. Their D-line does a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage and they let that young man run."
Connell plays free safety for the Tigers and has 52 tackles, while Camden plays defensive back and has 54 tackles, including three fumble recoveries.
"They have almost everybody (playing both ways)," LePage said. "I think we counted as many as nine going both ways.
"One of the things we try to do in that area is we try to do some things offensively to get them to think a little bit. When you're playing both sides of the ball, there's not much time for adjustments. The more things we can do early in a game, the more adjustments we can make with our offense later in a game that they may not be able to adjust to."
Sophomore Bradlee Gover, another two-way player, had a rushing touchdown and a fumble recovery for a score against Osage.
Blair Oaks rushed for 277 yards on 33 attempts against St. James, just 23 yards shy of their season single-game high. LePage was pleased with Dylan Hair's 80 yards on five carries, and along with Riley Lentz's performance, wide receiver Jake Closser added to the mix with a rushing touchdown.
"We're trying to do similar to what we did last year late in the year, get three guys involved where we can have a triple-option project," LePage said.
Notes: The winner of tonight's game between top-seeded Blair Oaks and fourth-seeded Salem will face either No. 2 seed Buffalo (8-2) or No. 6 seed Logan-Rogersville (3-7) next Friday in the district championship. Blair Oaks is averaging 47.8 points per game and allowing an average of just 8.3 points. Blair Oaks junior all-state defensive lineman Rylee Niekamp will miss tonight's game after suffering a right knee injury against St. James. Kamron Morriss will switch from linebacker and replace Niekamp at nose guard. "He's so fast and he's so physical down there, very similar to Rylee in what he does," said LePage, who noted Morriss volunteered to make the move. Ian Nolph will start in Morriss' place at linebacker and Kyler Griep will return to his starting linebacker spot after missing last Friday's game with a shoulder injury. Lathe Willson will miss tonight's game after suffering a broken hand in a non-contact drill this week in practice. Adam Jurgensmeyer will start in his place at right tackle.
Related Media: Blair Oaks Football Podcast [Salem preview, Nov. 8, 2019]