BRANFORD — Using a big-play offense, Branford took control early Friday night and kept Cornerstone Charter in check all night, winning 39-7 at Cleve Sikes Field at Buccaneer Stadium.
The Buccaneers scored on five plays of more than 40 yards with quarterback Seth Heiderman passing for three touchdowns and running back Dakota Hamm scoring on three runs and one touchdown reception.
On the first drive, Hamm had another would-be score that was negated by a penalty, but the Bucs quickly replaced that run for a 43-yard touchdown pass from Heiderman to Colton Leibold to go up 7-0 with 6:43 left in the first quarter. Junior Cress made a nice 33-yard catch on the drive.
Heiderman passed the 1,500-yard passing mark for the season in the first half and finished the game with 270 yards through the air. His other scoring passes went for 42 yards to Clay Williams and 69 yards to Hamm for the final Branford score of the night.
“It feels pretty good, first time we got over a thousand,” Heiderman said of a team more known for its rushing attack. “When you have good wide receivers and a good line, it’s pretty easy.”
On the kickoff return after Branford’s first touchdown, Cornerstone’s Zachery Saint Fleur almost got past the Bucs’ defenders but was tackled at midfield and a 15-yard penalty on the tackle set up the Ducks on the Branford 32-yard line. But Cornerstone’s drive ended on a dropped pass on a fourth-and-5 attempt.
It took Branford two plays to score with Hamm running for a 78-yard touchdown, putting his team up 13-0.
Williams recovered a fumble on a squib kickoff, but a couple plays later Heiderman was intercepted.
Starting at Branford’s 45-yard line, the Ducks patched together a drive, which included a 15-yard run by quarterback Nicolas Stutchman. But on a fourth-and-6 keeper inside Branford’s 20, Stutchman ran left past the first down marker but was smothered by multiple defenders and fumbled to the Bucs.
Two more scoring runs of 61 and 13 yards from Hamm put Branford up 26-0 at halftime.
“We ripped some huge runs, we had no problems with running the football,” Branford coach Tim Clark said. “We threw the ball well; close to 300 yards.
“Offensively, we could do what we wanted when we didn’t have penalties and things that backed us up.”
The Ducks made two nice defensive plays on long passes on consecutive drives to prevent any more first-half scoring from Branford. One was a tipped ball away from Williams — though the Bucs had a penalty on the play anyway — and on the other, a defender knocked the ball away.
In the third quarter Branford needed only two plays each on two consecutive drives to score long touchdowns.
Heiderman threw and completed four passes on those two drives, including the two scores — hitting Williams from 42 yards out on the first drive and threw a perfect pass to a wide open Hamm for a 69-yard score pass to put Branford up 39-0 with 6:15 left in the third quarter.
With second and third team players in for Branford, the Ducks managed a 36-yard pass completion from Stutchman to Jayden Valentine and a 12-yard TD pass to Noel Salmiento as the clock ran out.
“I would have liked a shutout, we were able to get out of it healthy and get a big win, and that was our main goal tonight; to dominate early and get out of the game healthy,” Clark added.
“Those were all young guys out there; we challenged them to keep them off the board, but Cornerstone found a way to get in the end zone. We told kids that moved up from junior varsity and ones that haven’t gotten to play a lot that this would be an opportunity for us to put guys, the ones and twos (string players) on the sideline and keep them away from injury.”
Ducks coach Jim Pusateri said the Bucs have tough players.
“Tough team, they have a good opportunity (for playoffs). I think they were better last year, but they beat us pretty good last year also,” he said. “They have good lineman, but 12 of our starters didn’t play.
“We have a lot of young guys playing, freshmen. They’re not ready to play but they had to. Down the road it may help us with them gaining experience.”
Branford now must wait for Sunday’s 7 a.m. playoff bracket unveiling from the Florida High School Athletic Association to know its playoff fate.
The Bucs were fifth in the Region 3-1A RPI rankings heading into the regular season finale with the top six teams in the region advancing to the postseason. If those rankings hold, Branford would head back to Hilliard where it lost earlier this season.
“Nothing is official until Sunday morning, we have to look at other scores but we’re pretty confident this will be enough to get us in,” Clark said. “There’s many factors that go into it.”
Clark said the team needs to play better to beat Hilliard, if they get them in playoffs.
“We lost on the road over there. We need to play cleaner; we shot ourselves in the foot a ton,” Clark said of the loss. “They played physical. We’re familiar with them, and we’re looking forward to playing them if we get another shot at them.”
Heiderman added: “We were off, we had too many turnovers. It was 21-0 when we touched the ball one time. We had two snaps on offense. We can turn it around (against Hilliard). Our receivers run good routes, they catch the ball good, we’ve just been on it this year. And we can give it to Hamm when we need to.”