By REID TUCKER
Freeport started off slow against Graceville but a score early in the second quarter reenergized the Bulldogs, who went on to defeat the Tigers by 20 points.
Whether it was the usual distraction of Homecoming festivities or something else altogether, something just wasn’t clicking for Freeport early on the night of Sept 28. The Bulldogs (2-3) had a hard time getting anything rolling on offense on the first two possessions of the game, going three-and-out from no nearer than their own 45-yard line. While Freeport settled down after scoring its first TD, head coach Jim Anderson said slow starts and good finishes do not a complete game make, something that could prove costly as Freeport moves into the meat of its season.
“We had a lot of distractions this week, but that’s no excuse,” he said. “Homecoming is a lot of fun and all, but our guys have got to put four quarters together. Graceville has come a long way and their program is getting better, but they had been just a little bit better, we wouldn’t even have been in the game with a start that slow.”
However, it wasn’t just the home team that had trouble. Graceville had also already punted twice without getting close, but the third punt proved disastrous for the Tigers, as it set up their eventual loss.
Freeport’s Chase Caswell returned the punt to the 21, and then team mate Nick Russell took it 11 more yards down-field just as the quarter came to an end. Set up on the 10, quarterback Gabe Moore ran for a first down on the 3-yard-line, which running back Owen Cole quickly turned into a short run up the middle for the first Freeport TD of the night. Moore hit Casewell with a short pass to make good on the two-point conversion, giving Freeport an 8-zip lead with 10:43 still to go in the half.
The Tigers scored their lone touchdown on the ensuing drive, an 11-play, 62-yard march that ate up roughly half the remaining time in the quarter. Rasheed Campbell did the majority of the leg work, and indeed got a good portion of his 46 total yards on the night by getting the ball to the 10-yard line. Jared Padgett used the last two plays of the drive to scamper across the line into the end zone at the six-minute mark and a good point-after kick made it a one-point game for the time being.
Freeport took the lead again with only 38 seconds left in the half. After both teams ran into more trouble and were forced to punt following a string of missed blocks, missed passes and penalties, Freeport pounced on the chance for a quick score in its final possession, with Moore hitting Morgan Hardee on a 58-yard pass play for a second touchdown. Moore put in the point-after kick and Freeport led 14-7 with just 38 seconds left in the half.
After taking care of halftime Homecoming court duties, the Bulldogs took care of business in the latter two periods, scoring twice more to solidify the win against Graceville. Moore, Cole and Caswell each carried the ball in the third quarter’s first drive, which culminated in a 7-yard run from Cole at the 8:21 mark, though Moore’s point-after kick failed.
Both sides fumbled the ball in their net possessions, but Graceville recovered in both instances, the second of which nearly set up the Tigers for a score. Campbell got the ball to the 4-yard line and Padgett would have another TD to his credit had a holding flag not called the play back. Their team mate Preston Nichols fumbled and recovered the ball at the end of the third quarter, but a valiant effort from leading rusher Jarrett Brogdan to cross the one came up short, which forced a turnover on downs just seconds into the final quarter.
The Bulldogs got five first downs on their next drive, which ended in a final touchdown from Cole, this time from 23 yards out with 6:30 left in the game. Moore put the kick between the posts to give Freeport its 27-7 final score, though Graceville still had some fight left in it, as they proved on their final drive of the game. After recovering another Freeport fumble, Nichols, a freshman, was able to make a good pass that was only just broken up in the end zone by the defenders.
Cole led the Bulldogs on the night with three touchdowns and 53 yards on 12 carries. Moore completed 8-of-15 passes for 159 yards and he ran for 50 on nine carries. By contrast, Graceville’s Brogdan carried the ball 18 times for 116 yards, most of them straight up the middle.
The most important game for Freeport so far this season is without a doubt this week’s game against Baker, as the Gators, the Bulldogs’ first district opponent so far, have also fallen twice in a row to Freeport, last year by a field goal in overtime. Anderson said the Graceville game highlights where his team continues to struggle, namely up front on the o- and d-lines. Sustaining blocks and getting hits are going to be critical if Freeport is to make it 3-0 against Baker in as many years, he said.
What’s more, the Gators are gunning for Freeport.
“They’ve been focused on this game since last year,” Anderson said. “They’ve been saying the whole goal of their season is to beat us this time.”