Merritt Island wouldn’t let Palm Bay win with the running game Friday, so the Pirates tried the passing game.
To no avail.
Merritt Island turned one interception into its first touchdown and Colby Price broke up the Pirates’ last pass to preserve the Mustangs 14-6 Region 3-5A semifinal victory at the O-Dome.
Merritt Island (11-0) plays at Lake Wales, a 20-9 winner over Tampa Jesuit, next Friday in a Region 3-5A semifinal. Palm Bay finishes the season 9-3.
On fourth and 2 at the Merritt Island 31, Price broke on a slant pass by Palm Bay quarterback Brian Fallace and batted it away. He nearly intercepted it, but it accomplished the same objective — ending the Pirates hopes.
“I saw the receiver cut in on a slant route, so I jumped underneath it,” Price said. “Hopefully the ball would’ve been thrown there; and it was.”
Tucker Bennett did the same at the end of the first quarter, picking off Fallace and returning it to the Palm Bay 17. Four plays later, Nick Smith bulled in on a fourth-down sneak from the 1 to put the Mustangs up 7-0.
Palm Bay allowed Merritt Island to run only four plays in the first quarter and 13 plays total in the first half. But the Mustangs made the most of each play.
The Mustangs struck quickly on their next possession. Smith lofted a long pass. It tipped off the hands of Palm Bay defensive back Shawn Davis into the hands of John Harder. Harder caught it and finished off an 80-yard touchdown to put the Mustangs up 14-0.
“It was scary, but I saw he wasn’t going to catch it,” Harder said. “So I just fell back, caught it and hustled for the touchdown.”
That left the Mustangs to withstand Palm Bay’s running attack. Sekai Lindsey ran for a game-high 104 yards on 26 carries. He had several key plays, including a 13-yard gainer on a fake punt and a 15-yard halfback pass to Alex Jasmin.
“(Lindsey is) one of the hardest runners we’ve seen all year,” Merritt Island coach Jeff McLean said. “He’s got great speed and is a physical runner. But our defense played physical too.”
Palm Bay’s big-play capability bit the Mustangs early in the third quarter. After Palm Bay held Merritt Island on its first drive of the third quarter, Josh Best snagged a bouncing punt and ran it back 74 yards to bring the Pirates within 14-6. Reggie Benjamin blocked punter Nick Smith to help Best finish off his return.
But the Mustangs held off several Palm Bay excursions into Merritt Island territory in the second half. Tucker Bennett forced Lindsey to fumble deep in Merritt Island territory, and Andrew Bocci recovered with 5:14 left. The Pirates didn’t threaten again.
“We played assignment football,” McLean said. “Our defensive staff does a good job of playing assignment football.”