WEATHERSFIELD - No one was more upset that a cold front moved in early Thursday night than Salem coach Ron Johnson.
He knew his Quakers were going up against a Division VII football team in Mineral Ridge in which most of its starters were playing both offense and defense.
Salem, on the other hand, a Division IV team, was able to bring in an entire new offense and defense. Thus, the gameplan for Johnson was to wear down the smaller Rams, and it worked, just not as well as he hoped.
Tribune Chronicle / Michael Taylor
Mineral Ridge’s Nick Ferguson is brought down by Salem’s Ross Armeni (30) and a host of other Quakers during their game on Thursday night.
"I do wish it would've stayed 85 and humid," Johnson said with a laugh. "It got a little chilly tonight."
The bus ride home was probably nice and cozy.
Salem shut down Mineral Ridge and slowly but surely pulled away from the Rams in a season-opening 28-7 victory at E.Z. Whittaker Field.
The fatigue of playing both ways seemed to be most evident up front, where Salem (1-0) held an obvious size advantage. The Quakers' defensive line was the main reason Mineral Ridge (0-1) mustered just 34 yards rushing on 27 carries.
"There's no doubt that had an effect," said first-year Rams coach Jeff Whittaker about his players going both ways. "It did take a toll on us. Toward the latter part of the game, we physically started to get worn down."
That's when Salem pulled away.
The Quakers took a 13-0 lead on a 2-yard run by running back Kade Byland and a 21-yard pass from quarterback Matt Weingart to Byland, who ran a wheel route and walked into the end zone with just more than a minute remaining in the first half. A safety put Salem up 15-0 in the third quarter, but penalties squandered several opportunities for the Quakers to add on to the lead.
Byland appeared to be put the game out of reach with a 4-yard run with 7 minutes, 17 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, giving Salem a 21-0 lead. But the Rams struck back on the next drive as Mac White launched a 60-yard pass to running back Sam Kooeyman, who rumbled down to the 5-yard line. Kooeyman punched it in for a touchdown two plays later, but there was only 4:39 remaining, so Mineral Ridge had to attempt an onside kick. The kick went off a Salem player, but one of his teammates quickly corralled the ball to maintain possession.
Two plays later, Quaker running back Cooper Bezeredi made a nice cutback and scampered 37 yards for a touchdown that removed all doubt.
"The line held up pretty good up front - I had a lot of time," said Weingart, who was sharp in connecting on 13 of 19 passes for 124 yards. "We started out slow, but we got it going at the end."
The Salem defense was as solid as the offense, which ran for 199 yards and passed for 124. The 'D' held the Rams to 144 total yards and had a shutout for 43 minutes of the game.
Whittaker said an inability to sustain drives played a role in the tiring of the defense, which made several big stops inside the red zone to keep the game close.
"I thought we played pretty darn good defense," he said. "We had some outstanding defensive plays. We just didn't do enough offensively. They had 57 plays at half, we had 17. You can't let a team have the ball that much. Their best asset tonight was their defense. They kept our offense off the field. It was supposed to work the other way, but that wasn't the case."
Mineral Ridge hosts Lisbon next week, and the Rams will honor the 1963 and '64 undefeated football teams. Whittaker's brother, E.Z. Whittaker, who the field is named after, was a member of both teams. Thursday was the first time Jeff coached on the field named after his brother, who passed away of a heart attack at age 39. Jeff said he was too focused on Salem to think about the situation.
"Honestly, it was game time," he said. "I was really thinking more about Salem."