3258BarnwellTackle.JPG (copy)

Barnwell's Deshawn Watson (right), Demaurion Ginn (left) and CJ Ransom are all key members of a Warhorse defense tasked with stopping Saluda's Air Raid offense in the Class AA state championship game.

Limping into the playoffs on a two-game losing streak, Saluda head football coach Stewart Young gathered his players and fellow coaches to tell them about something he had noticed.

The Tigers weren't having enough fun as he felt they needed to have, and that was something he wanted them to fix. So he set out to make some changes, simplifying things offensively to get his playmakers the ball in space. 

It's worked – Saluda has averaged more than 46 points per game during its run to the Class AA state championship game (5 p.m. Friday at Benedict College), where it will meet a Barnwell defense that hasn't let anyone have much fun this season.

The Warhorses (14-0) are allowing only 10.5 points per game this year, a number inflated by Oceanside Collegiate's 31 points in last week's Lower State final. That's the most points they've given up all year, and eight of their 14 opponents scored in single digits.

"They make my job on offense so much easier," said senior quarterback Craig Pender. "They get us a stop, and our offense is so multiple, you know, we go down the field with one back and we get inside the 10-yard line and stick it down somebody's throat in the wishbone. Whenever they get a stop, it gets us ready to go on offense."

Saluda (11-3) will look to pass first – and second, and probably third – when it has the football, but Young said the Tigers have developed a little bit of a run game in recent weeks. Despite the "Air Raid" designation, only about 55 percent of the Tigers' plays this season have been pass attempts.

Senior quarterback Noah Bell and senior 6-foot-2 wide receiver Dallan Wright own just about every statistical record that's available to them. Bell has passed for 3,616 yards and 44 touchdowns this season, and he's rushed for 454 yards and another 15 scores. Wright has 76 catches for 1,337 yards and 21 touchdowns.

Jervon Whitt is the team's second-leading receiver with 906 yards and 17 scores on 48 catches, and Montrevious Baker is Saluda's leading rusher with 945 yards and seven touchdowns on 133 carries. The Tigers are averaging just under 40 points per game. They've scored more than 40 in nine different games this year, and they've scored 50 or more on five occasions.

Barnwell will counter with a defense that has big-time contributors at each level. Senior Shrine Bowl linebacker Deshawn Watson is the leader of the group, with 172 total tackles (28 for loss), 14 sacks, two interceptions and two defensive touchdowns, including last week's sack-fumble he recovered in the end zone for a 7-0 lead against Oceanside Collegiate.

"He's a heck of a player," said Warhorses head coach Dwayne Garrick. "He's probably the best defensive football player I've ever coached. He's one of those kids that can take two steps the wrong way and still make up for it. We're really pleased to have him."

Senior defensive lineman Ernest Smith has 118 tackles (30 for loss) and eight sacks, junior defensive backs Adam Clark and CJ Ransom each have around 90 tackles, and sophomore defensive back Demaurion Ginn has a team-high five interceptions. Ten different Warhorses have had a hand in causing a turnover, meaning any Barnwell defender on the field on any given snap is capable of getting in on the fun.

That, in turn, hasn't been much fun at all for opposing offenses.

Kyle Dawson covers sports for the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter @ItsKyleDawson.