By BLAKE MCCORMICK
It was a tale of two halves as the Freeport Bulldogs got off to a quick start, then sloshed through an error-filled second half en route to a 28-7 Homecoming win against the North Bay Haven Buccaneers this past Friday night.
“The first half, we played really well, I thought.’ said Freeport Head Coach Jim Anderson, whose program is now 3-1 for the time since 2011. “The second half we didn’t hold on to the ball, and we missed some tackles. We have to be more consistent, both offensively and defensively. We gotta put four quarters together and take advantage of all the opportunities we have to score.”
After a short kickoff by the Bulldogs, the NBH offense took the field. Running back Kai Kirts carried the ball three straight times for 29 yards, pushing the ball down to the Freeport 22-yard line, giving the home team uncomfortable flashbacks to a week ago when Holmes County punished the Bulldogs with over 300 yards rushing. However, a high snap resulted in an 18-yard loss that was followed by a tackle of Kirts for a loss of four yards that stifled the drive with 9:29 left in the quarter.
A good punt by NBH put the Bulldogs on their own 10-yard line with less than optimal field position. That didn’t faze quarterback Zack Johnson, who opened the possession with a 43-yard run. Johnson went 2-for-2 passing for 38 yards on the drive, finding teammates Ethan McFerrin and Dylan Lewis for 19 yards a piece. Chris Decker rushed the ball four times for 24 yards and finished the time-chewing eight minute drive with a 7-yard touchdown run.
Following a tackle for loss by Dalton Simpler, the Bucs offense couldn’t get out of it’s own way; getting a penalty, and another high snap over quarterback Joe Evans head, causing the Bucs to have to punt from their own 20-yard line to set up the Bulldog offense with good field position at the visitors 45-yard line.
On the Bulldogs’ subsequent drive, Johnson completed a 10-yard strike to McFerrin, then scrambled for 17 yards on the next play. Decker then busted through the NBH defensive front for a 28-yard touchdown run. The three play, 55-yard drive made the score 14-0 and it looked like the Bulldogs would be in for a stress-free Homecoming night with 11:09 left in the second quarter.
That appeared to change when the visitors from Panama City opened up their offense to respond with a 7-play, 82-yard drive that was highlighted by a 44-yard touchdown pass on 4th-and-7 from Evans to Justin Bayless, who caught the ball in the middle of the field then shifted outside where no Bulldog defenders were present. The play made the score 14-7 with 8:02 remaining in the second quarter.
Freeport tried to counter the sudden change of momentum by attempting a reverse, wide receiver pass from their own 15-yard line only to see the play fail with Johnson then being sacked for a three-yard loss on the next play. A short punt followed and Freeport found themselves in the danger zone, giving their opponents great field position at the Bulldog 28-yard line.
Junior Carswell, the gentle giant from DeFuniak Springs who was also a homecoming representative at halftime, helped bail his team out of peril, sacking Evans, then making a solo tackle for little gain on the next play. The Bulldogs delivered a great team effort on a fourth down stop as the responsive Bulldogs weathered the peril and got the ball back on their own 18-yard line.
The offense followed the great display of their defense with an impressive 10 play, 82- yard scoring drive. Johnson commenced the drive with a 20-yard run, then, later, completed an 11-yard pass on a key third down to Homecoming King Zack Seay. Chris Decker ran three times for 26 yards and added his third touchdown of the night, a 7-yard effort that gave his team a 21-7 halftime lead.
On the first play of the third quarter, just as students were beginning to exit and get a jumpstart to the Homecoming dance, the Bulldog offense sparked one last head turner when Johnson threw a 65-yard touchdown strike to Weston Bates, giving the Bulldogs a 28-7 lead.
Offensively, the rest of the game would be a forgettable mess for the Bulldogs as each of their next five possessions ended in a turnover. Johnson, who had been a crisp 6-of-7 passing the football for 132 yards, threw three interceptions on three of his next four passes while also fumbling once. The Bucs also recovered a botched snap to part-time quarterback Zack Seay.
Defensively, however, coordinator Willie Sand’s group kept the sporadic NBH offense out of the endzone. On the Bucs opening possession of the half, Bayless was jarred by the Bulldog defense and fumbled the ball away. Bryce McBrayer, Justin Clark, and Colton SImpler all had tackles for losses on key third and fourth downs to help end drives. The secondary, led by Senior Dylan Lewis, gave up more plays than desired but was strong when the Bucs had chances to score on two drives that ended near the Bulldog 20-yard line.
Added Anderson, “We can’t go backwards. It’s absolutely true, you either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same. We went forward from last week but I don’t think we have gone forward a whole lot since we played Cottondale and Wewa. We’ve got to make sure we have two weeks of great preparation before we play South Walton. We have to move forward.”
Freeport will be off this Friday before starting their district slate against arch rival South Walton on Sept. 30 in Santa Rosa Beach.
By BLAKE MCCORMICK