MACCLENNY, Fla. – The ball settled into the hands of Mandarin defensive back Jonathan Mitchell, and that interception sent a sizable portion of the Veterans Stadium crowd toward the exits Friday night.
But, even though two minutes remained and Baker County had no timeouts, the game was far from done.
A turnover quickly put Baker County’s offense back on the field, trailing by one but needing a touchdown with its kicker injured. The host Wildcats worked their way inside the Mandarin 1. But the Mustangs came up with another huge defensive play, this one with linebackers Carmelo Murphy and Jackson Copeland stopping quarterback Noah Ray three yards from the end zone with no time on the clock.
Only then was it safe to hit the exits, as Mandarin players swarmed the field with a 21-20 victory in hand in the News4Jax Game of the Week.
Mustangs coach Bobby Ramsay confessed to having a few more white hairs after witnessing a game in which his team seemingly had control of the contest with two minutes remaining but had to rely on a last-second goal line stand to win.
In a contest in which both sides came up with several impact defensive plays, Baker County (3-2) struck back two plays after Mitchell’s pick. Linebacker Bryce Kazmierczak stripped Mandarin quarterback Tramell Jones and recovered the ball, his second recovery of the game.
The Wildcats, ranked seventh in the News4Jax Super 10, had the ball at the Mustangs 48 with 1:13 remaining. But they had no timeouts left and kicker Blake Mays had not played the entire game because of a broken wrist.
Still, a big run and three completions worked the ball to the 1-yard line. A false start set Baker County back to the six, and the referee signaled the clock to start with less than six seconds remaining.
“You’re just hoping to keep them out of the end zone and keep them in bounds,” Ramsay said. “We work those situations in practice. We just keep the ball in bounds and bleed the clock. But when they got the ball inside the 5, basically you’re a fan at that point.”
Ramsay could breathe easy. Ray rolled right, but linebacker Victor Winston slowed his progress. Murphy and Copeland cleaned it up and brought down Ray to secure the victory for Mandarin (2-3).
“We’re fighting. We became a team,” said Murphy, who scored the game’s first points on a 20-yard fumble return for a touchdown. “Our coach asked us to finish, we finished.”
Wildcats coach Kevin Mays was gratified about the way his team rallied. Baker County trailed 14-0 at the half and was forced to go for two-point conversions — and eschew field goal attempts — due to his son’s injury.
Despite all that, the Wildcats had a shot at the end.
“You know the way my kids played in the second half, I was real proud of the effort, and that’s all you can ask for,” coach Mays said. “We started chasing points. It didn’t work our way at the end, but we had a chance.”
It was the fourth time in the fourth quarter that Wildcats had the ball in Mandarin territory. A fourth-down stop less than a yard short of the first down by Tony Carter ended one drive. Mitchell’s grab ended another. Then final one came up three yards short courtesy of Winston, Murphy and Copeland.
A 49-yard touchdown pass from Ray to Jaymodd Ruise after Carter’s stop was the only time Baker County could score in the fourth, that one cutting its deficit to 21-20.
“You know you will always get great effort out of (the defense),” Ramsay said. “They’re not perfect, but they will give great effort. That’s what you enjoy, the effort they give.”
Murphy got his team on the board midway through the second quarter. End Daron Dukes spiked the ball from Ray’s hand, and Murphy scooped it up and ran it in. Mandarin tacked on a Jones-to-Koron Hayward touchdown pass right before the half for a 14-0 advantage.
The ground game pushed Baker County, which had four dropped passes, back into the contest. A nine-play drive, all runs, ended when Jamarian Baker scored from four yards out. Murphy, however, stopped the two-point try to keep the game at 14-6.
But the Wildcats defense came up big. With Mandarin pinned deep following a botched kick return, a high snap to Mustangs quarterback Jhamari Harvell deflected off his hands. Kazmierczak recovered and, on the next play, Cam Smith rushed in from two yards for a touchdown. Kylon Washington and several Mustangs again stopped the two-point try, leaving the Mandarin lead at 14-12 with 4:17 left in the third quarter.
The Mustangs launched their second successful drive late in the third. Jeremiah Shack converted a 3rd-and-18, after hauling in a pass from Jones and twisting, turning and fighting his way into Baker County territory for a 20-yard gain. Just a few plays later, Shack crossed the goal line with a 19-yard pass from Jones for a 21-12 edge.
But, with five minutes left, the Wildcats struck when Ray hit Ruise. Smith’s two-point conversion run put Baker County within 1.
Still, the Wildcats could not get the one play to push them ahead. They were just three yards away when it was OK to head toward the exits.
“The defense played good,” Winston said. “We gave up the big play, but we played until the end. That’s how you win games.”
Mandarin 21, Baker County 20
Mandarin, 0,14, 0, 7 —21
Baker Co., 0, 0, 12, 8 — 20
M – Carmelo Murphy 20 fumble return (Ben Hipp kick)
M – Koron Hayward 8 pass from Tramell Jones (Hipp kick)
BC – Jamarian Baker 4 run (run failed)
BC – Cam Smith 2 run (run failed)
M – Jeremiah Shack 19 pass from Jones (Hipp kick)
BC – Jaymodd Ruise 49 pass from Noah Ray (Smith run)
Category; M — BC
First downs: 11 — 18
Rushes-yards: 32-114 — 46-194
Passing: 145 — 169
Comp-Att-Int: 10-21-2 — 11-25-1
Fumbles-lost: 4-2 — 3-1
Penalties-Yards: 11-100 — 8-59
RUSHING — M: T.J. Lane 11-47, Terrance Johnson 7-24, Jones 3-21, Kieren Jackson 1-14, Ellis Davis 2-8, Jhamari Harvell 8-0. BC: Smith 15-82, Baker 18-69, J. Ruise 2-19, Ray 8-19, Dillan Ruise 2-7, Team 1-(-2).
PASSING — M: Jones 7-15-2-109, Harvell 3-6-0-36. BC: Ray 11-24-1-169, Jamil Jones 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING — M: Shack 3-58, Hayward 3-36, Jackson 1-19, Lane 1-15, Johnson 1-12, Jaime Ffrench 1-5. BC: J. Smith 3-61, Ruise 2-61, Mai-khai Mosley 2-19, K. McDowell 1-18, Josh Holmes 1-10, Baker 2-0.