Panthers edge Chargers, 17-10
By J. Daniel Pearson
For the News-Gazette
Former Florida State Head Coach Bobby Bowden used to preach the importance of the kicking game, saying that special teams accounted for a full third of the outcome of most games. Friday night, Bowden would have upped the percentage to 100 as special teams play, directly or indirectly, accounted for all the scoring in Gateway’s scoring in a 17-10 district win over Liberty.
Recapping, the Panthers grabbed a 7-0 lead when they blocked a Liberty punt and recovered on the Chargers 1-yard line to set up a short touchdown run by Isaiah Wharton.
On Liberty’s next possession, a bad snap forced punter Charles VanStralendorf to scramble, where he was tackled on the 35-yard line. Three plays later, Gateway made it 14-0 when Wesley Escobar scored from 24-yards out on a quick-hitter up the middle.
On a positive special plays note, Santiago Henoa made it 17-0 late in the second quarter when he capped a seven-play, 53-yard drive with a 35-yard field goal.
Special teams continued to play a major role in the game when Henoa’s 22-yard field goal was blocked in the third quarter and scooped up by Liberty’s Justin Winkler who raced 83 yards for a touchdown to cut the gap to 17-7.
A Liberty drive two possessions later ended with a 37-yard field goal by VanStralendorff and cut the lead to 17-10.
Kicking also played a role at the end of the game. After the field goal, Liberty successfully executed an on-sides kick to regain possession with 2:28 remaining. Quarterback Patrick Knight would drive the Chargers down to 26, but the young freshman missed on three passes and took a sack to effectively end of the game.
“That was a weird one for us, but we’ll take the win,” Gateway head coach Marlin Roberts said. “Depending on what side you were standing one and depending on what possession you were talking about, special teams played a huge role in the outcome of the game. Still, I was extremely pleased with the play of our defense, they didn’t give up a touchdown. Our offense moved the ball well at times, but we need to work on our consistency and learn how to finish drives.”
An error by the officials helped Liberty. Down 14-0, Charger running back Kyle Sharman had the ball knocked loose and Chase Smith recovered and raced 24 yards for an apparent touchdown. Game officials huddled and determined an inadvertent whistle had occurred, allowing Liberty to re-run the play. “It was a quick whistle and it cost us a score, but there’s nothing we can do about it,” Roberts said. “Still we could have been up 24 or 31 to nothing at half and instead of finding ourselves in a dogfight. It just seems like those have been the type of plays that have been happening to us all year.”
While Liberty controlled time of possession and ran 58 plays from scrimmage compared to 37 by Gateway, the Chargers were outgained by the Panthers in total offense, 302-211.
Individually, Wharton gained 123 yards on 12 carries and scored a touchdown for the Panthers, while teammate Escobar added 82 yards rushing on eight carries. Jacob Rodriguez was the workhorse for the Chargers, gaining 75 yards on 21 carries. Darnell Clayton added an interception for the Panthers, while Knight was 9 of 22 for 103 yards passing for the Chargers.
The win lifted Gateway to 3-4, 2-2 in the district, while the Chargers fell to 2-5, 1-3.
“Regardless of whether we have a chance to make the playoffs, we have a lot of play for down the stretch,” Roberts said. “This was senior night and we sent those guys off with a win in their last home game. Now we need to finish strong.”