ATLANTA -- With 222 yards rushing already attached to Willis Sheppard’s name in overtime, none were bigger than the next 15 the Salem sophomore recorded.
First, it was a 13-yard scamper into the end zone - his fourth of the night - to give the Seminoles a 42-36 lead. Next, it was his 2-yard rush on their 2-point conversion try to give the Seminoles a 44-36 lead and ultimately a victory over Druid Hills, 44-42.
Sheppard finished with a career-high 237 yards rushing on 32 carries and helped propel the Seminoles to their first victory of 2019. As many running backs do, the stoic sophomore gave credit to his offensive line for the success that he had.
“I would never have been done without them,” Sheppard said. “We’ve been fighting all summer for this win. I just really appreciate my team for holding up and coming together as one.”
Sheppard’s overtime yardage wasn’t needed if not for a late-game touchdown from Druid Hills, who trailed the Seminoles for the entire second half. Leading the Red Devils 36-28 with 16 seconds remaining, a 1-yard score and subsequent successful 2-point conversion sent the game into overtime.
After taking a 44-36 lead in overtime on Sheppard’s score, the Seminoles allowed a Red Devils touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 7-yard line. With the hosts setting up for a potential game-tying 2-point conversion, junior linebacker Jadon Powell ended the game with a sack.
“They tried to down block me,” Powell said. “I’ve been practicing with my coach and he taught me how to use my hands. That’s all I did. I used my hands and then used my speed to get to him. It felt so wonderful.”
The first big rush of the night wasn’t from Sheppard, but from junior quarterback Daniel Scott, who called his own number for a 41-yard run on the Seminoles’ second drive of the night. On the very next play, Sheppard raced into the end zone for a 27-yard score.
Scott then passed right to Sheppard on their ensuing 2-point conversion try to give the Seminoles an early 8-0 lead with 5:13 remaining in the first quarter.
The Seminoles’ lead was short-lived, however, after failing to tack on more points. A bad snap on a punt attempt gave the Red Devils possession deep inside Salem territory and the hosts capitalized.
A 22-yard pitch-and-catch from Sterling Knowles to Graham Connell cut Salem’s lead to 8-7 with 10:23 remaining in the second quarter. A second consecutive miscue on special teams gave the hosts another short field, and again, they capitalized.
This time it was Druid Hills running back Paul George who raced into the end zone on the first play from scrimmage from 29 yards out to give the hots a 14-8 lead.
After re-gaining the lead on a Scott 6-yard touchdown run, 16-14 with 2:46 remaining, the Seminoles appeared to be in good position to get one last opportunity to score before the half.
That was until the Red Devils connected on a 59-yard touchdown pass on third-and-10 with 1:54 remaining, giving the hosts a 21-16 advantage.
The Seminoles had held the Red Devils to 59 yard of total offense before their 59-yard go-ahead touchdown.
The Seminoles, however, did not let the score phase their offense. It took Scott and the offense only 61 seconds to answer back with a touchdown, a drive that was capped off by a 2-yard score from Sheppard.
“This is why he came to Salem,” Salem head coach Jarrett Laws said. “We’ve been telling him that there’s going to be a night where it’s all about you. Tonight, he welcomed the opportunity. As great as he was, the bigger point is how humble he is. I just love that kid.”
Scott connected on a 23-yard passing play to Mikal Osgood on the drive to help set up the score and give the Seminoles a 24-21 halftime lead on a third straight successful 2-point conversion try.
“That was one of those times where Michael Johnson and I got on some synergy,” Laws said. “Sometimes we find ourselves gambling on some of last year’s things with this year’s kids. I give credit to MJ.”
The Seminoles built their biggest lead of the game, 30-21 on their first possession to start the third quarter. A methodical 8-play, 55-yard drive that featured a fourth down conversion ended with defensive tackle Jacoby Lawson scoring on a 1-yard run.
A fourth down stop by the Seminole defense gave the ball back to Scott and the offense. Scott quickly connected with Brian Woods, who made a diving catch for 35 yard down to the Druid Hills 37.
Two plays later, Scott was intercepted.
While the Seminoles’ defense did not allow a score on the Red Devils’ ensuing possession, the hosts did find the end zone five minutes later when Knowles connected with a wide-open Connell for a 22-yard score.
Leading the Red Devils 30-28, the Seminoles faced a fourth-and-7 from the Druid Hills 20-yard line. Electing to go for it, Scott called his own number and earned the first down on a 15-yard rush.
On the next play from scrimmage, Sheppard scored again, this time from five yards out. A failed 2-point conversion, however, kept Salem’s advantage at 36-28, which later allowed the Red Devils to force overtime in the closing seconds.
When Salem’s celebration ensued following Powell’s sack, many players were fighting back tears. Scott was unable to hold his in. The win gave Scott his first career win as Salem’s starting quarterback.
“It’s emotional because we’ve gone through so much to try and get to this point,” Scott said. “Even though we’re missing players and stuff, we still pulled together as a family to get this win. Most people were doubting us and we proved them wrong.”
The Seminoles rushed for a season-best 319 yards on 48 attempts with 237 coming from Sheppard and 88 from Scott. The junior quarterback also threw for 74 yards on five completions.
With the Salem offensive line anchoring the run game, sophomore tackle Kris Phillips called Friday’s performance one of, if not their best up front.
“The offensive line worked really hard tonight,” Phillips said. “I’m just proud of what the offensive line did. Coach Laws trusts us, our quarterback trusts us and our running backs trust us. We just had to come together to win.”
Despite taking Salem to overtime, the Red Devils were out-gained in total yards 393-243.
“These kids have a lot of things that they’ve been facing,” Laws said. “There has been a lot of ups and downs this year. A lot of changes. With this past week missing several players that are normally in the lineup and asking ninth and 10th graders to step in and try and conceptualize varsity football, it’s not the falldown that makes me look at the situation for what it is. It’s the fact that they kept getting up and kept swinging back. I think that is going to bode well for the future of this program.”
SALEM 44, DRUID HILLS 42
Salem: 8 16 6 6 8 -- 44
Druid: 0 21 0 15 6 -- 42
Salem: Willis Sheppard 27 run (2-point conv.), 5:13
Druid: Graham Connell 22 pass from Sterling Knowles (kick), 10:23
Druid: Paul George 29 run (kick), 7:43
Salem: Daniel Scott 6 run (2-point conv.), 2:46
Druid: 59 pass from Knowles (kick), 1:54
Salem: Sheppard 2 run (2-point conv.), :46
Salem: Jacoby Lawson 1 run (2-point conv. failed), 8:26
Druid: Connell 22 pass from Knowles (kick), 11:52
Salem: Sheppard 5 run (2-point conv. failed), 2:04
Druid: Max Nunnally 1 run (2-point conv.), :10
Salem: Sheppard 13 run (2-point conv.)
Druid: Nunnally 7 pass from Knowles (2-point conv. failed)