SALEM -- Jonathan Taylor knew he had two games in which to gain the 137 yards he needed to break Corey Clement’s South Jersey single-season rushing record, but Thanksgiving Day was going to be his last chance to play at home in front of the Salem High School faithful at Walnut Street Field -- and he wanted to do it there, for them.
After a slow start which included an early fumble, Taylor broke a pair of long touchdown runs including a 78-yarder to pass Clement atop the leader board. He would finish with 250 yards and three scores as the Rams pulled away in the second half for a 36-10 win over rival Woodstown in the 105th meeting between the schools.
“Being so close, you’ve got that in your mind,” Taylor admitted. “(I) started off a little bit rough the first couple of series, but put that aside and started running how I usually run and letting it come naturally. Things started opening up.
“After that (fumble), I knew I shouldn’t change anything up. We’ve been doing well all year, I should just have faith in my line like I’ve had all year.”
The Rams defense held the Wolverines (6-4 overall) after the turnover and forced a punt, and three plays later Taylor found an opening around left end and raced 68 yards for a touchdown. Zaire Jones, who transferred from Woodstown, ran in the two-point conversion to give Salem (9-2) an 8-7 lead just before the end of the first quarter, a lead it never lost.
It was only three minutes later that Taylor got loose around the right side and outraced the defense for the record-breaking score. The Wisconsin commit surpassed Clement, a Glassboro and current Badgers standout back, and ended the day with 2,626 rushing yards for the season with the South Jersey Group 1 championship game still to go.
“Once the jitters come out with JT, then he’s ready to go,” said Rams head coach Montrey Wright. “He’s been doing it all year long. At the beginning of the year we had penalties, yards called back…. He’d probably have 3,000 yards right now. He’s been really chopping, chopping away at this thing.
“He’s been consistent all across the board, I haven’t seen Jonathan Taylor not be consistent. … As a coaching staff, we’re pleased he has that mindset to do that, and our offensive line as well.”
Jones added 98 yards, a touchdown and a pair of conversion runs for Salem, which led just 14-10 at halftime as a Christian Smith-Coleman touchdown run gave the Wolverines an early lead and Drew Frassenei booted a 22-yard field goal late in the second period.
Woodstown got the ball out of halftime, but fumbled the opening kickoff which was returned 21 yards by Jones. The Rams converted on a Taylor 4-yard TD run on the next play to make it 22-10.
It was the first of four second-half turnovers Salem forced to pitch a shutout after the break. Ramere Nock added a fumble recovery, Ray Bentley and Jamere Furbush added interceptions and Furbush posted a big sack just before his pick.
“We had to step things up (defensively), those 10 points should have never happened,” Furbush said. “We felt like we were slacking. … I never feel like I have a game secured at any time, because anything can happen in any game. … (The sack and interception) made me feel a lot better (though).”
“That’s been kind of the theme of our season besides the West Deptford game, we found ways to beat ourselves in every other game,” said Woodstown coach John Adams. “We had three turnovers in the playoff game, then we come out in the second half and had a couple of big turnovers right off the bat….
“You can’t win a football game against a team like that … turning the ball over. You’ve got to win the turnover battle and we didn’t do that, and they’ve got a playmaker in Jonathan Taylor…. One guy out of position on two of those plays and he made us pay for it. He’s a fantastic player.”
Adams was still pleased with a winning season and playoff berth despite the adversity his team faced this year, and on the other side the Rams can now turn their attention to avenging a loss to Paulsboro in the 2014 title game.
Taylor has his South Jersey record now as well as the modern-day state rushing mark, surpassing the 2,605 yards of Hoboken’s Tyrell Dortch in 1990. The state and national rushing record is held by John Giannantonio of Netcong, who rushed for 4,756 yards in just eight games in 1950.
Salem is hoping that Thursday’s performance will continue the momentum they’ve built since a 1-2 start and carry over into the team’s first championship since 1983.
“We’re definitely feeling good,” Taylor said. “We came into this game wanting to keep the momentum rolling into the championship game. Some people don’t take care of business on Thanksgiving and that rolls over into the next game.”
“I have nine seniors that played in that state game, they were sophomores at the time,” said Wright. “Ever since then those guys couldn’t wait, they were drooling to get back to this point. It just so happens we have the same team we lost to in 2014, so I think these guys are highly motivated coming into this game.
“We haven’t won a championship in 30 years, so … the opportunity’s in front of them. We just have to take it. It’s going to be a physical game, the intensity’s going to be high. We’re looking forward to it.”
Scott Chappelear writes for South Jersey Sports Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @srchappie.
Salem 36, Woodstown 10
Woodstown 7 3 0 0 -10
Salem 8 6 8 14 -36
W: Christian Smith-Coleman 7 run (Drew Frassenei kick)
S: Jonathan Taylor 68 run (Zaire Jones run)
S: Taylor 78 run (run failed)
W: Frassenei 22 field goal
S: Taylor 4 run (Jones run)
S: Ray Bentley 3 run (Zuri Dublin run)
S: Jones 9 run (kick failed)
The Salem football team runs onto Walnut Street Field after walking from the high school down the street escorted by a fire truck Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016. (Scott Chappelear)
Salem stands at attention in front of the flag during the national anthem Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016. (Scott Chappelear)
Salem coach Montrey Wright holds up the Thanksgiving Day trophy after his team's 36-10 win over Woodstown Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016. (Scott Chappelear)