Bartram Trail has not shied away from the fact this could be a memorable football season and proved as much in its playoff opener.
Friday’s 56-14 win over visiting Clermont East Ridge was as much a testament to the Bears overlooked special teams and defense as it was an offense that could not be stopped.
The Bears (8-3) have Northeast Florida’s most prolific offense, but deferred the coin toss. It’s a move that may have changed the tenor of the game because East Ridge muffed the opening kickoff.
Swarming special teams coverage meant East Ridge started at its own 6-yard line. A three-and-out, one of five the Bears’ defense forced on the night, gave the home team the football inside the East Ridge 40.
One week after barreling over Nease in a highlight that has since gone viral, Bartram Trail quarterback Riley Smith picked up where he left off. Smith ran for 14 yards on a quarterback draw on Bartam’s first offensive snap. Two plays later the 6-foot-5 Smith was darting through the Knights defense for a 19-yard touchdown run.
Smith finished 11 of 17 for 183 yards and three touchdowns. His only two carries of the night were on the first drive of the game. As he attempted to explain how the quarterback draw package is among his favorites, wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson playfully interjected to give his assessment.
“He’s just so good that when you have a quarterback like Riley, anything is possible with our offense,” Hutchinson said. “Then you have two quarterbacks who are talented, it’s just hard to stop. You have (Riley and) Joseph Peter Gatewood and then you have (running back) Devin Fletcher Ellison. He is too good.”
Ellison’s 4-yard touchdown run with 2:22 remaining in the first quarter gave Bartram Trail a 28-0 lead.
At that point, Bartram Trail had only run six offensive snaps because it started all four of its possessions on the Knights half of the field.
The only reason Bartram Trail was held to 210 yards in the first half was because the team’s superior special teams gave the Bears’ offense a short field. Bartram’s average field position for its seven possessions in the first half was the East Ridge 43-yard line.
For the game, the average starting field position for the Bears was midfield, while East Ridge’s was its own 18 yard line.
Midway through the first quarter, Bartram’s Rhett Barnett blocked an East Ridge punt. Corbein Hagans recovered at the Knights 7 yard line.
“Our punt block is amazing. They work as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen. They are always trying to get that ball. It definitely helped us out. We work on short yardage and we love getting good field position without any pressure on us. We love putting it in the end zone when we get it easy like that.”
Obligingly, the Bears did exactly that. On the next offensive snap, Joey Gatewood took a quarterback sweep to the right and he had enough blocking and speed to get into the end zone untouched to make it 14-0.
A perfectly placed kickoff from Ethan Dudley meant East Ridge started its third drive at its own 5 yard line. Another three-and-out let to another short field for the Bears. Smith found Gunnar Hitzeman (5 catches, 92 yards) all alone in the secondary for a 45-yard score to give the home team a three-score lead.
“You’re playing a very good football team and we don’t come out and play very well early in the game,” East Ridge coach Jason Robinson said afterward. “They didn’t need any help and we gave them a bunch of it to start the game. Obviously, that was disappointing and frustrating. But, no one hung their heads. We made a couple of plays, could have made a couple more; but, in the end, that’s a very good football team.”
Bartram Trail led 35-0 midway through the second quarter when Gatewood (four carries, 45 yards, two touchdowns; 7 of 8 for 76 yards) ran for his 11th rushing touchdown of the season.
“We really played as a unit,” said Bartram Trail inside linebacker Johnny Amell about a defense that held East Ridge to 30 rushing yards on 28 carries. “No one tried to show out. Everyone did his job. It showed up on the field.”
Bartram’s 56 points marked the tenth time in 11 games this season their opponents conceded their season-high in points, or tied it, when facing the Bears.
Bartram’s senior class is looking to leave a legacy of its own. The Bears are not bashful in asserting they want to play December football. Friday’s business-like victory was the first of many steps.
The next challenge will be a red-hot Tallahassee Lincoln team that won two straight in the last minute of the game. The Trojans (5-6) upset fifth-seeded Lake City Columbia 36-33 on Friday night.
“Whoever we play is going to be good,” Cromwell said. “They also put their pants on one leg at a time, just like us. We prepare as hard as anyone. It’s next team up. Obviously, at this point, whoever we play is going to be good.”