By REID TUCKER
In football it’s often the little things that make all the difference, and Freeport proved that to be true, staying tough to earn 26-21 win after a pitched contest against Graceville.
The Bulldogs (6-5), who had faced Graceville twice already since May, gave the 8-3 Tigers only their third loss of the season, which came to an end on Nov. 16 in the Region 1-A semifinal. Considering the history between the two teams and the stakes involved, the game was bound to be close, but Freeport pulled ahead by three touchdowns in the second quarter by capitalizing on a muffed kickoff and a fumble. While Graceville clawed back to a one-TD deficit at halftime, Freeport never gave up the lead and instead relied on its defense to stop the Tigers in their tracks long enough to hold out for the win.
Freeport head coach Jim Anderson said his team played the kind of football he’s been looking for all season. The win against Graceville, which marks his 75th since he came on board with the program in 2001, was as close to spotless as the Bulldogs have played all season, incurring few penalties with no offensive turnovers. By paying attention to “all the little things,” Anderson said, the big things find a way of taking care of themselves.
“We knew they were going to get some yards, so our guys had to bend and not break,” Anderson said. “We couldn’t give up big plays and we had to make them earn every score they got. Graceville was very physical but our guys stepped up when they had to. Wanting to win isn’t enough. You’ve got know what it takes and then do the little things.”
The game was more or less even from a statistical standpoint as well, with Freeport and Graceville posting nearly equal numbers in nearly every category, whether it was plays from scrimmage (57 versus 56 for 371 yards and 367 yards, respectively), first downs (20 versus 18), or time of possession (24:31 for the Bulldogs and 23:29 for the Tigers). The only substantial difference was that Freeport favored a more balanced attack, keying on the passing game of QB Gabe Moore, who completed 9-of-15 passes for 149 yards, and the fleet feet of Owen Cole, who carried the ball 20 times for 110 yards and two touchdowns. By contrast, Chipley fielded a rush-heavy offense led by Rasheed Campbell (13 carries, 192 yards), C.J. Miller (eight carries, 83 yards) and Jared Padgett (11 carries, 79 yards).
The first quarter was close but scoreless. Freeport attempted a 30-yard field goal close to three minutes into the first quarter on a fourth-and-10 situation, but Moore’s kick went wide, though Graceville turned the ball over on downs after an 11-play drive ending on the 24-yard line. Freeport had to punt on its next possession, giving Graceville the chance to march down to the 17 by the end of the period.
Graceville struck 30 seconds into the second quarter on a short 3-yard run from Jarrett Brogdan, with Malik Franklin putting in the point-after kick to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead. Freeport retaliated in short order, as, starting from the opposite 48-yard line, the Bulldogs offense needed only six plays to get to the end zone on an 8-yard reverse run from Morgan Hardee. Moore put the kick between the posts for a tie ballgame with 8:54 still to go in the half.
What came next at best ultimately decided the game and at worst gave the Bulldogs ample room in which to work. Graceville muffed the on-side kick on its next kickoff, and Freeport’s Dalton Raymond came up with the ball on the 30-yard line. The Bulldogs were in the EZ again three plays later on a 4-yard shot up the middle from Cole, which, combined with another point-after kick gave Freeport the 14-7 advantage at the 8:12 mark.
The Tigers got the ball on their own 40 on the next possession and managed to get inches from midfield but the overreaching offense coughed up the ball into the waiting hands of Freeport’s Cole, who two plays later ran the ball to the 28-yard line. The quick turnaround set up Moore to float in pass to Zach Fordem for a 30-yard TD strike with 5:12 to go, but Graceville had plenty of time for an 11-play, 65-yard drive for its second touchdown of the night. Freshman QB Preston Nichols hit Campbell on a spectacular 34-yard pass in which the receiver bobbled the ball twice before catching it for a 20-14 halftime score.
The third quarter was scoreless but far from uneventful, with the defense of both sides taking a toll on the other side’s offensive efforts. Graceville was stopped twice on a turnover on downs on the 20-yard line and a punt from the 47 and Freeport also punted on its first possession, though the Bulldogs worked their way down to the 21 on their next possession, which saw the end of the period.
Freeport scored its final touchdown of the night 34 seconds into the fourth quarter, capping off an 86-yard, 10-play drive begun at the tail end of Q3. Cole punched in a 9-yard run but Moore missed the extra-point kick, giving Freeport a 26-14 lead. Graceville replied with what became its final touchdown, when Miller broke loose on a 56-yard sprint for the end zone with just slightly more than 10 minutes left in the game. Freeport’s next drive was halted nine plays in, and the Bulldogs turned the ball over on their 46-yard line, but the Freeport defense ensured that the Tigers made nothing of two more possessions and the clock ran out on the 26-21 decision.
As for this week’s Regional Final game, it will mark the fourth year in a row that the Bulldogs will spend Black Friday on the gridiron. Anderson said he and the team wanted to enjoy their victory against Graceville but would be working hard over the weekend coming up with a game plan to use against Northview, which will once again host Freeport in the last contest before the state Final Four. Anderson said the key to the upcoming game will be to eliminate the mistakes that plagued the Bulldogs in their last meeting with the Chiefs, in which Northview dealt them a stinging 41-0 defeat.
“Last time we had some turnovers and we missed a lot of blocks and gave up a lot of big plays,” Anderson said. “We’re going to have to eliminate those mistakes from the first game and play a whole heck of a lot better, but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”