On Friday night of homecoming week, the Dunnellon Tigers (3-2, 1-0) blanked the Hernando Leopards (2-4, 0-1) by a 37-0 margin at Tom Fisher Stadium. The Purple and Gold were shut out for the third time this season and have now lost their last six meetings with the Tigers dating back to 2004. Though the night started with much optimism due to the festivities, the mood was somewhat soured by the match’s conclusion. It was not exactly a tale of two halves, as the Tigers controlled most of the game, but the Leopards kept it competitive and close in the first half before the floodgates opened in the third quarter. Hernando Head Coach John Scargle explained where things went wrong after the game.
“Apparently, we didn’t match up well,” Coach Scargle said. “The first half, we played them really tough. 8-0 going in, less than a minute left in the first half, and we gave up the late touchdown there on a turnover. We can’t have that when we’re driving down. Defense played really good the first half, but we came out flat in the second half, and we didn’t match up well with their run game.”
The opening drive looked promising defensively for the Leopards, who deferred receiving the ball until the second half. A seven-play drive came to a screeching halt for the visitors when OL/DL Kevin Williams forced Dunnellon QB Dylan Curry to cough up the football deep in Hernando territory. Both teams would hold steady until early in the second quarter. A 13-play drive spanning nearly six minutes of game time saw the visitors punch it in from 11 yards out with ATH Amari Francois, followed by an RB/LB Dylan Donahoe two-point conversion.
Another fumble by Tommy Sutton’s Tigers on their next offensive possession gave the Leopards just over four minutes to tie the game before halftime. Then disaster struck. Two plays after a reverse to QB/FS Leandre Wright set them up with a first down in Dunnellon territory, Hernando QB Michael Saltsman overthrew his receiver right into the arms of a diving Tiger DB Malachi Bullock. With 47 seconds left before halftime, the visitors utilized chunk plays to quickly move down the field until Dunnellon’s WR Chris Henry scored as time expired. A second two-point conversion twisted the knife as a previously close game started to get out of hand.
“[The score before half] changed the momentum a little bit, but when we came out flat getting the ball in the beginning of the third quarter, we weren’t able to drive it down and score,” Coach Scargle said. “Then, we gave it right to their offense, and nine plays, they put it in. That’s deflating for the kids. Now you’re down 24-0.”
At the half, Hernando’s homecoming court was announced as the students walked across the field with their families. To cap the proceedings, the Leopard’s homecoming king and queen, Seniors Tavareon Smith and Ashariona Harrington were announced. Harrington is a three-year varsity cheerleader, and Smith is a captain on the football team. Still in cleats in pads, the offensive and defensive lineman had to go right back out on the field minutes later.
Combined with coming out “flat” and the defense losing steam, Dunnellon scored touchdowns on three straight drives in the third quarter to put the game out of reach early. After a three-and-out by the Leopards, the Tigers put together a three-play drive of their own. Theirs ended in a touchdown: a 27-yard run by Donahoe, a 23-yard pass to QB/DB William Woods, and a 2-yard scoring run around the right by ATH Lacodrick Brown. Dunnellon’s third two-point conversion of the night put them up nearly four scores at 24-0, and they did not look back.
Another three-and-out for Hernando’s offense was followed by a poor 10-yard punt out of bounds to set the opposition up in fantastic field position at the Leopards’ 35-yard line. Six plays later, Francois took a handoff around the left side for his second rushing touchdown of the night. The visitors would have the PAT blocked, but that was basically the only thing that went wrong in the second half for Dunnellon. A touchdown by Donahoe would complete the scoring in the quarter, and any hope of a comeback expired.
Considering the Leopards’ offense is predicated so heavily on the run game, the team is not set up for large comebacks. The system is more effective when they can dictate the pace of the game by leaning on their talented running back, John Capel III. Much to the home team’s chagrin, they were unable to break off many chunk runs despite Capel toting the rock early and often in the matchup. As a result, the passing attack was unable to get anything going as well, and the defense spent much of the second half on the field.
The more gassed Hernando’s defense became, the more they were gashed for huge yardage in the second half. Giant holes began to open up for Dunnellon’s backs to sprint through, and one of the stats that reflected their exhaustion was turnovers. In the first half, Scargle’s defense forced two, but they failed to generate any in quarters three or four. Hernando’s coach hopes for them to come out with more intensity in the coming weeks.
“We got to come out in the third quarter with some juice, then we got to let it all hang out in the third quarter,” Coach Scargle said. “I don’t think we’ve won a third quarter yet. So, that’s going to be one of our focuses. Blocking and tackling—that won’t hurt either.”
Looking ahead to next week, the Tigers will host the Belleview Rattlers (0-4, 0-1) on Friday at 7:30. The Leopards will look to bring more “juice” when they make the short trip to Spring Hill to face the Springstead Eagles (3-2, 1-1). Hernando will take on their cross-county foe at 7:30 on Friday.