Salem’s football team was one play away from ending a tumultuous week in spectacular fashion.
Leading Utica Ford 18-14 with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Rocks were victimized by a fourth-and-10 20-yard rainbow pass from Ethan Reynolds to Michael Brown, who secured the ball in the back corner of the end zone between a pair of Salem defenders.
Salem drove to mid-field on its final possession, but turned the ball over on downs in a 21-18 season-opening setback.
The game was played at Livonia Churchill due to power-outage issues at the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park that were caused by Thursday night’s severe storms. Torrential rains on Wednesday also disrupted practices for both teams that were looking to put 1-win 2022 seasons in the rear-view mirror.
Despite yielding the game-winning TD, Salem’s secondary was stellar most of the night, as defensive backs Azarius Hayes, Terrance Smith, Rocco Spica and Drew Eisenbeis made big play after big play.
Hayes was dazzling on special teams for Salem, weaving through the Falcons on a 60-yard punt return TD in the first quarter before returning a kickoff 75 yards to the Ford 10 early in the second quarter.
Reynolds completed just 13 of 34 passes for 165 yards for Ford, but two of the completions found the end zone — Brown’s and a 47-yard scoring strike to Jack Nilson, who gave the visitors a 7-6 lead on his team’s first offensive play after Hayes’ punt return put the Rocks on top, 6-0.
Aiden Moore was a ball-hauling workhorse for Salem, carrying the rock 16 times for 83 yards and two TDs.
Braden Priester had nine carries for 44 yards.
Salem QB Brayden Alexander completed 12 of 22 passes for 78 yards. Hayes (five catches, 35 yards) was his favorite target.
Salem was hampered by six turnovers and a flurry of critical drive-stalling (for them) and drive-extending (for Ford) penalties, especially early in the contest.
Even though both teams struggled with opening-night miscues, the game was dramatically entertaining right down to Salem’s final incomplete pass.
Trailing 14-6, Salem sliced its deficit to 14-12 30 seconds into the second half when Moore plunged to paydirt from 1 yard out. The potential game-tying two-point conversion failed.
Ford drove to the Rock 31 on its next drive, which was stymied when Salem senior defensive lineman Travis Dulong recovered a Reynolds fumble.
Salem regained an 18-14 advantage at the 2:18 mark of the third quarter on a 5-yard run by Moore.
The Rocks’ defense came up huge on back-to-back fourth-quarter Falcon drives, stopping them on a fourth-and-2 from the Salem 24 when Hayes stonewalled Elijah DeFalco one yard shy of the first down.
The Falcons drove to the Rocks’ 1-yard line with 4:15 to play but were stymied one yard short of the goal line on a fourth-and-goal from the 2 play.
Operating from the shadow of the goal post, Salem nearly sealed the win, but a short pass from Alexander to Hayes was deflected by a Ford lineman. Hayes still managed to get two hands on the ball — and would have manufactured a long gain at most, a crucial first down at minimum — but it slipped from his grasp, forcing a punt that set up the Falcons’ winning drive.
In addition to Dulong’s fumble recovery, Smith picked off a Reynolds pass near mid-field in the second quarter.
The game mark the head-coaching debut of Landon Garrett, who took over for Devin Murphy during the off-season.
Garrett is the third head coach in the past three seasons for Salem.
Ed Wright can be reached at 734-664-4657 or firstname.lastname@example.org.