FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. – It wasn’t just the 43 times that Ta’Jon Nelms carried the ball that was impressive, nor was it the 194 yards the Fernandina Beach running back picked up on the ground.
But the 5-foot-7, 190-pound Nelms refused time after time Friday night to go down on first contact, staying on his feet and even initiating hits, which seemed to personify the Pirates’ effort against unbeaten Palatka in the News4JAX Game of the Week.
Nelms battered the Panthers defense with two touchdowns as Fernandina Beach controlled the ball, while the Pirates defense made several key plays in toppling visiting Palatka 27-15 in what could be a program-defining victory for Fernandina Beach.
“It isn’t just me out here, it’s the whole team,” said Nelms, naming off his offensive line and several players on offense and defense. “Trust me. We all did it.
“We have one of the best defenses in the county. People usually dis on us. They don’t believe we can win. This is something we can show off, that we can win against big teams.”
It likely will reflect well in the FHSAA power rankings. The Pirates entered the game as ninth in Region 2-2S, with four division winners and then four at-large teams per region making the postseason. It marked the third consecutive victory for Fernandina Beach (4-3), a run that started after a difficult overtime loss to Interlachen.
“It’s huge. We needed to beat a great team, an unbeaten team, because we still need to build confidence here,” first-year Pirates coach Apollo Wright said. “With a little confidence, imagine where they could go. So, as much as everybody loves football, a win kind of eases everything.”
While Fernandina Beach can celebrate for a short time — the Pirates take the field for a key Monday night football meeting against Nassau County rival Yulee in a hurricane-delayed contest — it was a tough pill for the Panthers. Palatka (7-1) had its best start to a season since 2003, and a victory Friday night would have matched the 8-0 start by the 2002 team.
Panthers coach Patrick Turner pointed to his team’s inability to create negative plays as critical in the defeat. Nelms played a major role in that, as only four of his carries went for no gain and only once was he thrown for a loss.
“They stayed on schedule, sometimes getting four or five yards or more than that,” Turner said. “That’s the mark of an improving offense, a good offense. An offense that’s doing what it should stays on schedule. We need to have more off plays or negative plays to combat that.”
Palatka’s offense, aside from a seven-play first-quarter drive for the first score of the game, seemed confounded by Fernandina Beach. The Panthers had been outscoring opponents, on average, by 41-12. After the scoring drive, Palatka managed only 78 yards of offense.
Basically, the Panthers’ big weapon was returner Chavaris Dumas, who had a potentially game-tying third-quarter kick return for a touchdown called back by a blindside block penalty and then helped cut into a 27-7 fourth-quarter deficit with a 90-yard return for a score.
One reason was several key plays from the Fernandina Beach defense. Joshua Modupe had a fourth-down sack to stop one Palatka drive, Elijah Smith added a timely sack, Camden Boyd ended another drive with his fourth interception of the season and Devin Murray’s fourth-quarter pick set up Nelms’ second scoring run of the game, from 20 yards for the Pirates’ last score of the game.
Another reason for the Panthers’ lack of offense was Nelms and his teammates on offense. Nelms picked up nine of his team’s 20 first downs with runs, as Fernandina Beach controlled the clock for 32 minutes, 24 seconds of the 48-minute contest. He limped around in the fourth quarter after being hit on the knee, exited the game for a few plays and then was right back grinding away.
“He’s tough. He comes out and plays,” Wright said. “He has it in his eyes. He has had a little bit of success, so be careful of someone who’s had success. And the offensive line is the same way.”
Among the Pirates’ possessions: A nine-play drive to start the game and a second possession that ended with no points. But both drives set the tone. Following a three-and-out, Fernandina Beach went 94 yards on 16 plays, with quarterback Jackson Denton hitting H-Back Kyle Jones on fourth-and-goal from the 3 to tie the game.
The Pirates added eight- and 11-play touchdown drives.
“Our defense has been playing lights out,” Wright said. “Our offense is finally clicking. It took a little bit of time for me to get to know them and them to get to know me.”
Denton finished strong, completing his final eight passes after starting 1 of 7. Six of his completions went for more than 20 yards. Four completions were hauled in by Jones, with two going for touchdowns and another setting up Nelms’ first scoring run, a 2-yarder in the third quarter that broke a 7-all tie.
That sets up Fernandina for a critical week ahead, with the Monday game against Yulee and then Baker County next week in a showdown with playoff implications.
“We haven’t been to the playoffs since my freshman year,” Nelms said. “And I’m glad that, as a junior, me and my teammates can (possibly) do it for our seniors.”
On the other side, the unbeaten season is finished for Palatka, but a District 6-2S title and playoff spot still is up for grabs next week when the Panthers meet Bradford.
“We have to learn how to handle adversity in tight games,” Turner said. “We’re playing for a district championship but the truth of the matter is, if the season ends today, it’s a successful year for us.”
Fernandina Beach 27, Palatka 15
Palatka, 7, 0, 0, 8 — 15
Fernandina Beach, 0, 7, 7, 13 — 27
P – Saiquan Williams 7 run (Joseph Alvarez kick)
FB – Kyle Jones 3 pass from Jackson Denton (Harry Reaves kick)
FB – Ta’Jon Nelms 2 run (Reaves kick)
FB – Jones 23 pass from Denton (Reaves kick)
FB – Nelms 20 run (kick blocked)
P – Chavaris Dumas 90 kick return (Tay Valentine run)
Category: P — FB
First downs: 10 — 20
Rushes-yards: 26-116 — 48-226
Passing: 62 — 152
Comp-Att-Int: 8-20-2 9-15-0
Fumbles-lost: 2-0 —1-0
RUSHING — P: Williams 9-49, Jamarie McKinnon 11-28, Valentine 2-33, Tommy Offord 2-7, Albert Leonard 1-2, Team 1-(-3). FB: Nelms 43-194, Andre Lucas 3-18, Camden Boyd 1-10, Jones 1-4.
PASSING — P: McKinnon 8-20-2-62. FB: Denton 9-15-0-152
RECEIVING — P: Williams 4-24, Lane Sheffield 2-22, Tyran Bush 1-12, Valentine 1-4. FB: Jones 4-69, Boyd 2-44, Lucas 1-29, Jermari Johnson 1-6, Jeremiah Jordan 1-4.