Trailing at halftime, Catholic High had already reached one of those critical points of a football season.
The Crusaders responded with an exclamation.
After taking a third-quarter lead, Catholic exploded for 24 points in the fourth quarter and rolled past Gulf Breeze 41-24 in a rivalry win Friday night at Dolphin Stadium. The game was the PNJ-ESPN Pensacola Game of the Week.
The Crusaders got big plays from quarterback Z’Khari Blocker, big turnovers from their defense and three touchdowns from freshman tailback Abram Smiley.
The future is looking upward.
“(Last night) was about moving toward an identity,” said Catholic coach Greg Seibert, whose team has not lost at Gulf Breeze since 2006. “We had to move some personnel around. We want to be a balanced offense. We want to be a good defense.
“We’re going to have to play some bend-don’t-break (defense), because we don’t have great depth. But if we are able to manufacture some points and get off on third downs, we have a chance in our district.”
District play is still weeks away. But last night, Catholic showed its own resolve, following a rough loss at Navarre in last week’s opener, then a mistake-filled second quarter that led to Gulf Breeze having a 16-10 halftime lead.
The Dolphins scored a pair of touchdowns in the final 90 seconds behind the strong quarterback play from junior Tyler Phelps.
“I told (players) if we persevered, we would be okay,” Seibert said. “I was really happy with coach (Matt) Adams (offensive coordinator) game plan and (defensive coordinator) coach (Kerry McDowell) did a great job defensively.”
The second half, the Crusaders created their own momentum. They did it with the Smiley brothers — senior receiver and defensive back Simeon Smiley — along with Blocker’s array of skill and speed.
“We’ve got to get over the hump,” Gulf Breeze coach Chris Nemith said. “The kids are playing hard. There is no quit. But it is hard to mimic that speed in practice. Once (Crusaders’ ball-carriers) hit a seam it is hard for us to get there.
“We have some good kids. When they are facing that kind of speed we can’t (yield) creases.”
One of those big holes led to Abram Smiley’s second touchdown. After a short punt, he burst free up the middle for a 52-yard run. Placekicker Billy Harris, who gives Catholic a valuable weapon in the kicking game, converted the extra point for a 17-16 lead with 8:50 remaining.
Harris then extended the lead with a 28-yard field goal with 11:39 remaining. After points scored, the then creates touchbacks on kickoffs.
The Crusaders forced their second interception on the ensuing possession. A personal foul penalty was tacked on against Gulf Breeze. The next play, Blocker hit junior receiver AJ Yates with an 18-yard touchdown.
Blocker then blew open the game with his 85-yard run with 7:29 left. That ended any hope Gulf Breeze had.
“He is a special kid. He is a special player,” Seibert said. “I just expect big things from him.”
“The younger Smiley finished off Catholic’s scoring with his 11-yard run with 2:29 left. Smiley was named the ESPN Pensacola player of the game.
“I think he has a chance to be a special player down the road, but really offensively up front I was happy way the we played in the third quarter,” Seibert said.