By Phil Anastasia
Paulsboro returned to its roots in more ways than one.
South Jersey's most decorated public-school football program won its 17th South Jersey Group 1 championship with a 21-0 victory over Salem in the hard rain Saturday at Rowan University.
But the twist in the Red Raiders' rise back to the top of the sectional tournament was the team's title-game reliance on an old-fashioned offensive appoach: A dominant ground game.
"I love Coach (Glenn) Howard but if we would have not run the ball today I would have been upset," Paulsboro senior De'Shaun Burgess said after finishing his career with an electrifying performance on the slick, wet artificial turf.
Burgess carried the football 17 times for 191 yards -- by far his most carries and most yardage in a game this season.
Burgess broke off runs of 53, 62 and 35 yards. His 53-yard scoring run on the game's fifth play gave the Red Raiders the lead and set the tone for the event.
"That first touchdown run of his was fantastic," Howard said after Paulsboro finished with a 10-2 record. "That gave us confidence."
Senior running back Dione Alston, an Albany recruit, carried the football 25 times for 82 yards for Salem (8-4), which had won six in a row.
"I'm extremely proud of my football team," Salem coach Dennis Thomas said. "We lost to a great football team."
Paulsboro won 16 sectional titles from the start of the state tournament in 1974, including 11 under Howard, folllowing much the same formula: Sturdy defense, strong special teams and a powerful ground game.
But after a 12-8 loss to Glassboro in the first round last season, Howard decided to change the Red Raiders' offense. He installed a no-huddle, spread approach with full commitment to the passing game.
"We needed to change things up," Howard said, citing the Red Raiders' failure to win a title since 2006.
Paulsboro was a pass-first, -second and -third offense this season. The Red Raiders relied heavily on the arm of junior quarterback Carlton Aiken as well as receivers Theo Holloway and John Pellegrini.
Burgess also became more of a receiver than a runner. He entered the game with 607 receiving yards and 525 rushing yards.
Last season, Burgess ran for 1,249 yards.
"It felt like last year," Burgess said of championship game. "I knew with the weather, we would run the ball. I was getting a little tired out there."
Thomas said his team was prepared for Paulsboro's running game but was surprised by the Red Raiders' commitment to the ground attack.
"I thought they might throw it 20 times," Thomas said. "That was a great game plan."
Aiken was just 2-for-5 passing for minus-3 yards. He had thrown 53 times for 301 yards in a 36-33 upset of West Deptford on Nov. 28.
But with Burgess and senior fullback Antoine Gaines (16 carries, 65 yards) leading the way, Paulsboro relied almost exclusively on its ground game.
The Red Raiders also played stout defense, three times stopping Salem drives inside the 25-yard line in the first half. Senior defensive tackle Davonte Randall, senior linebacker Shawn Ferrell and junior end Tyrique King led the way.
"We've been talking about this since we were little kids," Burgess said. "I remember being in reading class in third grade and Paulsboro was winning a title and we were saying, 'That's going to be us someday.'
"I'm just so proud that we were the class that brought the title back to Titletown."
Salem 0 0 0 0 -- 0
Paulsboro 7 0 7 7 -- 21
P: De'Shaun Burgess 53 run (Niko Savaiinaea kick)
P: Carlton Aiken 3 run (Savaiinaea kick)
P: Antoine Gaines 1 run (Savaiinaea kick)
-- Contact Phil Anastasia at firstname.lastname@example.org