It was a game of inches in the FHSAA Class 4S State football semifinal between the Buchholz Bobcats and the Lakeland Dreadnaughts, and the more experienced Lakeland side pulled out a 21-20 victory at Citizens Field to earn a chance at a second consecutive state championship.
Bobcats Dominate Early
Although they fell behind early before coming back to win their last two playoff games against Ponte Vedra and Bartram Trail, Buchholz (13-1) came alive in the first quarter, much to the delight of the home fans Friday.
The game began with an excellent kickoff return by Buchholz receiver Justin Williams, who took the ball down to the Bobcats’ 47-yard line.
All of the big guns for Buchholz got going on that first drive. Bobcats quarterback Trace Johnson hit wideout Jordan Richardson for a gain of 28 and running back Quinton Cutler punctuated the drive with a 9-yard rushing score to make it 7-0 Buchholz.
After forcing a Lakeland punt, Buchholz hit on another big play offensively. A screen pass from Johnson to two-way star Myles Graham gained 46 yards and took the Bobcats down to the Dreadnaughts’ 30-yard line.
Two plays later, Johnson and Williams connected on a brilliant deep ball that went 30 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-0 Buchholz with just over 3 minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Lakeland Fights Back
Despite going down 14-0 early, Lakeland (11-3) was not going to be beaten so easily.
The Dreadnaughts’ next drive extended from the end of the first to the beginning of the second quarter, and when they were faced with fourth down in Buchholz territory, they pulled off a stunning trick play.
On the last play of the first quarter, Lakeland punter Calum Muldoon ran the ball himself rather than kicking it away, gaining 9 yards and a first down at the Buchholz 28.
This shift in momentum changed the course of the game.
On the very next play, the first of the second quarter, Lakeland quarterback Zander Smith found his receiver Rick Penick for a 28-yard score to make it 14-7 Buchholz.
Both teams exchanged punts, and Muldoon pinned Buchholz back at its own 12.
That was when the next game-changing play put Lakeland right back into the mix. A screen pass to Williams was knocked into the air and intercepted by Dreadnaughts linebacker Malik Morris at the 7.
Morris would be the one to take the ball into the end zone three plays later on a 1-yard run to make the score 14-14.
Both teams again exchanged punts, leading to the end of the first half with the game tied at 14.
Game Comes Down to the Wire
In the third quarter, each team’s defense stepped up. Opportunities were few and far between until Lakeland barely missed a deep shot to an open receiver for a certain house call.
However, that drive was extended by a pass interference penalty on Buchholz, and Dreadnaughts receiver Jamar Taylor Jr. helped the team continue to get down the field with a 36-yard reception from Smith.
Lakeland finished the drive when running back D’marius Rucker blasted into the end zone from 2 yards away to make it 21-14 Lakeland at the end of the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Buchholz started with the ball at its own 22 needing to score a touchdown and an extra point in order to tie the game at 21.
The Bobcats offense rose to the occasion. After an excellent drive where they showcased their strong run-pass balance, Johnson found Richardson in the end zone from 2 yards out.
The key play on the drive was when Johnson escaped pressure from the Dreadnaughts defense and found receiver DJ Hicks for a gain of 31 yards.
“DJ is a Polk County guy, so he’s familiar with a lot of these guys [Lakeland],” Buchholz coach Chuck Bell said. “It was personal for him tonight.”
But the Bobcats failed to convert the extra point, leaving the score at 21-20 in favor of Lakeland with just eight minutes remaining in the game.
A long drive for Lakeland, aided by another Buchholz pass interference penalty, ended with a missed field goal attempt, but left just 3:47 on the clock for the Bobcats to try and win the game.
Unfortunately for Buchholz, Lakeland was able to pin its ears back and defended aggressively, forcing a punt with a three-and-out.
The Dreadnaughts again attempted to run the clock with their possession, and took all but one minute of it before giving the ball back to Buchholz.
Needing just a field goal to win the game, the Bobcats were only able to make it to their own 34-yard line before running out of timeouts, and, eventually, out of time.
“They were one point better than us tonight,” Bell said. “They left it all on the table, and there was no play left in the bag that we could’ve pulled out.”
Lakeland faces Venice (12-2) in the state championship game at Bragg Memorial Stadium in Tallahassee on Dec. 9.