An eerie silence fell over the Pace sideline as players and coaches alike waited for the referee to signal who committed the penalty.
The Patriots were nursing a four-point lead with 3:45 left in the fourth quarter, and their defense had finally rose to the challenge to put Gulf Breeze in fourth-and-long. But there for all to see was yet another yellow flag and, for a team that had already been called for eight in the second half, that spelled trouble.
“We were incredibly nervous. Our season could be changed by that call,” said Pace junior running back Anthony Johnson Jr., alluding to the fact that a loss would have cost the Patriots any shot at the playoffs.
Fortunately for the Patriots, they were able to exhale and let out a roar from their sideline after the official signaled an unsportsmanlike penalty on the Dolphins. Gulf Breeze punted the ball, and Johnson busted a 54-yard touchdown run to put the game out of reach as host Pace claimed a 42-31 district victory Friday night.
Pace head coach Mickey Lindsey emphatically pumped his fist as he watched Johnson sprint down the sideline and prevent Gulf Breeze (2-6, 1-1) from clinching one of the top two spots in the district.
Johnson atoned for a fumble in the first quarter that cost the Patriots six points by breaking free for 369 yards and five touchdowns on 36 carries. His fourth of those touchdowns — a toss to the left in which he stiff-armed a Gulf Breeze defender and scampered 57 yards — handed the Patriots (3-5, 1-1) their first lead of the second half at 35-31 with 6:50 on the clock.
The Pace junior followed his 157-yard first-half effort with another 212 after intermission. He credited the offensive line for opening massive holes for him in the second half, particularly after TJ Brubaker nailed a 37-yard field goal to put the Dolphins up 31-28 with 7:33 remaining in the game.
“Our o-line was good early but kind of shaky,” Johnson said. “They knew it was do or die after he made that field goal.”
Gulf Breeze countered the Patriot rushing attack by moving the ball successfully through the air until its final two drives. Dolphin quarterback Ricky Alexander picked the Pace cornerbacks apart, connecting with wide receivers Cole Sheppard and Tristan Covell on short out patterns and screen passes to his staple of running backs.
Alexander completed 23-of-33 passes for 192 yards and three touchdowns. His only interception came on the final drive with the Dolphins trailing by 11 and the clock under two minutes.
“I’m so proud of Ricky stepping up and doing what he did tonight,” Gulf Breeze coach Chris Nemith said. “They give you the five yards and you’ve got to be able to take the five yards and move the ball.”
The Pace defense aided the Dolphin effort by committing penalties. Three of its penalties in the second half came on the opening Gulf Breeze drive as Alexander completed a 5-yard touchdown pass to Covell. Pace then committed a roughing the passer call that led to the Brubaker field goal midway in the fourth quarter.
The defensive unit responded with the clutch stop on the next series, though. Chaz Russell sacked Alexander, the Patriots then blew up a screen pass on third-and-long, and to their relief, the referee pointed in the other direction on the penalty call.
“It was do or die,” Johnson said, “and we did it.”