GULFPORT — Picayune converted a fourth down deep in its territory and then returned an interception for a touchdown late in the game to turn back a Gulfport comeback and beat the Admirals 35-21 Friday night on the coast.
The Maroon Tide entered the fourth quarter leading Gulfport 28-7 on the strength of several big plays. But the Admirals responded quickly in the final 12 minutes on the strength of two big plays of their own — a 60 yards fumble return by Chris Redmond and a 41-yard pass play from Nicholas Williams to Prince Cottonham — to cut the Picayune lead to 28-21 with 5:27 left in the game.
Gulfport coach John Archie gambled by kicking deep and turning the game over to his defense. At first, it appeared the Admiral bet paid off — three running plays netted just seven yards, with Redmond stopping Dorian Robinson three yards short of the first down marker at the Picayune 27 with around four minutes left to go in the game.
But Picayune coach Cody Stogner kept his offense on the field and gave the ball again to Robinson. This time, the senior back found a crease over the right side of his line and squeezed through for five yards and a Tide first down.
“Our identity is to run the football,” said Stogner. “We expect to gain at least three yards every time we run the football. Making that first down gave our players all kinds of confidence out there.”
For Archie, it might have been the play that sealed the Gulfport loss.
“We make that play, who knows what might have happened,” he said, thinking of the possibilities of Gulfport getting the ball inside the Picayune 30 with a full four minutes left on the clock and trailing by 7, 28-21. ”It was huge.”
Two plays after Robinson converted the fourth down, Chris Davis rambled for 40 yards to set the Tide up on the Gulfport 29. Although penalties would stall the Picayune offense, they did not give the ball back until there was only 49 seconds left.
The Admirals needed to go 71 yards.
On the first pass of the drive, Niquis Ratcliff stepped in front of a Gulfport pass at the Admirals 42 and returned it down the left side of the field for the night’s final touchdown, sealing the 35-21 Picayune win.
“That’s a good football team,” Stogner said. “This gives us all kinds of confidence that we can go out there and battle and compete.”
Picayune took control of the game early behind big plays. With Gulfport driving in the first quarter, the Tide defense came up clean forcing a sack and fumble at the Picayune 42. Three plays later, tailback Noah Carter took the second handoff from Dante Dowdell and followed his tight end on a setback reverse and didn’t stop running for 56 yards with the game’s opening touchdown..
“It was a great block and I saw the hole open up inside,” said Carter. “After that block, all I saw was green grass.”
Gulfport, though, came right back, with Jacob Palazzo connecting with Gavin Brown on a 39-yard pass play to the 11. Emmanuel Bentley would take the ball down to the 1 before Tyler Reed powered in to tie the game at 7-7 with 1:28 left in the first quarter.
Picayune took the lead for good in the second quarter, when Amarion Tyson picked up a Gulfport fumble deep in the Admirals’ backfield and rumbled 60 yards for Picayune’s first defensive touchdown.
After managing just 68 yards rushing on 12 carries — with 56 of those yards coming on Carter’s inside reverse — Stogner said he had a talk with is offense.
“We had a ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting at halftime,” he said. “The first half of offense was the worst offense that I’ve seen. We came out in the second half and executed.”
That execution started on the Tide’s initial drive as they drove 53 yards behind Reed, who ran the ball for 36 yards on four carries before Darnell Smith rambled in from 14 yards out to give Picayune a two-score lead, 21-7.
Gulfport’s first drive ended with a three-and-out, but a punt that bounced at the 20 and stayed inbounds pinned Picayune back on their 6. On second down Tide quarterback Dawson Underwood found Carter at the Tide 30 all alone and hit him with a perfect strike. Carter outraced Gulfport defenders for the remaining 70 yards as Picayune opened a 28-7 lead.
Carter touched the ball only twice, but went for 149 yards and two scores.
“He’s a great player who’s also a great student,” Stogner said. “He’s never missed a day of school or a workout.”
“Before the game I would have been happy to block all night and never touch the ball if we got a win,” said Carter. “I’m glad I touched the ball twice and got it into the endzone.”
The pass was the only completion of the night for Picayune.
Davis led Picayune rushers with 84 yards on 7 carries. Dowdell added 77 yards on 18 carries. Jessiah Contree recorded eight stops on the night to pace the Tide defense.
Palazzo was 12-of-19 passing for 155 yards on the night. He split time with Williams, who finished 6-of-15 passing with a pick and a touchdown and 119 yards. Brown was the leading Admiral receiver with five catches for 92 yards. Cottonham added three catches for 62 yards. Reed paced the Admirals rushing game with 75 yards on 14 carries. Jaklon Campbell led the Gulfport defense with eight stops. He also caught three passes for 54 yards.