Jaden Gardner sensed his team needed “one.”
The Pine Forest senior running back wanted one big play Friday night to deliver the knockout blow against a pesky rival in Washington with serious District 1-6A implications.
Gardner, who racked up nearly 150 rushing yards Friday, saved his best and longest run of the night during a crucial sequence midway through the fourth quarter.
Gardner got loose on a 40-yard scoring sprint that also saw him “break the ankles” of the Washington defender, who got spun around as Gardner blew by him down the home sideline.
It was the spark the Eagles needed to finish off the Wildcats with a 36-20 homecoming victory at Lon Wise Stadium.
“In football, you can’t get too high or too low. You’ve gotta stay even-keeled,” said Gardner, who also scored on a 12-yard run earlier in the game. “Being a senior, I take leadership very seriously and it’s on me, sometimes, to get everybody in the right mind.”
Pine Forest (5-2, 1-1) commemorated homecoming with the debut of sleeker red jerseys and a blue eagle sticker that beams across a large portion of the team’s red helmets.
First-half fireworks saw both teams combine for 41 points, as Washington (1-6, 0-2) did its damage behind Andre Hunt’s strong arm and Mystikal McGhee’s soft hands while the Eagles went with their traditional ground and pound.
For the night, Hunt and McGhee hooked up eight times for an eye-popping 219 yards, including a 92-yard, catch-and-run touchdown early in the second quarter.
“(McGhee) does a great job to catch the ball, and he did it again tonight,” Wildcats coach Charlie Ward said. “It wasn’t good enough. It hurts that we weren’t able to sustain what we had established in the first half.”
The game became a defensive struggle in the second half as both teams rose to the occasion to silence their counterpart’s different brands of high-octane offenses.
Pine Forest clung to its halftime lead, 21-20, midway through the fourth quarter. While the Eagles led on the scoreboard, their low-hanging heads and slumped shoulders painted a much bleaker picture.
Pine Forest was its own worst enemy with a slew of second half penalties and errors that led to some Eagles chirping at one another as frustrations built.
Instead of joining the blame game, Gardner encouraged his fellow teammates on the sidelines and, seconds later, let his actions on the field speak louder than his positive words.
Gardner scored the pivotal touchdown with a nasty juke that undressed the Washington defender and opened up a clear path to the end zone.
“The line did a great job,” Gardner said. “After I got those blocks, I cut it up the field with that juke to get that TD on the board for the team.”
Jaocb Copeland would seal the victory a few minutes later with a three-yard touchdown run, which was all set up thanks to a Chris Williams interception.
After Escambia drubbed Pine Forest in the district opener a few weeks ago, the Eagles knew they had no margin for error to keep their postseason dreams alive.
An Oct. 28 date at Tate figures to decide the remaining district representative.
“It’s big,” Gardner said. “We know we have a chance to get in the playoffs. If we want to continue on this journey to be state champions, we know we have to beat Tate.”
Pollard is only concerned about next week’s tilt at Niceville. The veteran coach liked what he saw from his team, but know there’s plenty of room to get better.
“We’ve got to continue to play well,” Pollard said.
With cool, calm and composed leaders like Gardner at the helm, the Eagles hope to find their playoff destiny while soaring among the clouds.