LIVE OAK — The Suwannee High football team won’t want to see the grade on its first district test of the year.
Stressing the run game, turnover battle and special teams as key to the District 2-5A opener Friday night against Rickards at Langford Stadium, the Bulldogs lost all three areas in a 40-14 setback.
“Those three phases were going to decide the game, and they did,” SHS coach Kyler Hall said.
“We lost those three phases, which in most games if you lose those three phases, you’re not going to win.”
The turnover bug showed up early. On just the second play of the game, the Bulldogs fumbled on a Malachi Graham run although it appeared Graham was down before the ball came out.
That miscue — the first of four Suwannee (3-3, 0-1) turnovers — led to a quarterback sneak six plays later to put Rickards (2-4, 1-0) up 6-0 less than three minutes in.
It was the first of three Raider scores off of takeaways — an errant snap over Tyree Taylor’s head midway through the second turned into a 5-yard Devin Bailey run that extended Rickards’ lead to 20-7 and a Ty Wehinger interception in the third quarter was followed by a 26-yard Bailey scoring run to push the advantage to 34-14.
The Raiders also scored one play after partially blocking a Suwannee punt to take over at the Bulldogs’ 30. De’andre Francis scored on that play that put RHS up 26-14.
“I have to coach much better,” Hall said. “I don’t think I had them as prepared as we needed to be tonight.
“That’s on me.”
Francis’ long scoring run was just one of a dozen Rickards runs of at least 10 yards with Bailey rushing for 147 yards on 16 carries, including that 26-yard scoring run and a 53-yard run in the fourth to lead to the Raiders’ final touchdown — a 34-yard pass.
In all, Rickards churned out 326 yards on 44 carries as it finished with 410 yards of total offense.
“They ran the ball very well,” Hall added. “We’ve been the victim of a lot of big plays in the running game. It’s just tough to win and then we turn the ball over and that’s a deadly combination.”
Suwannee capitalized on one of Rickards’ two turnovers to take its only lead of the game late in the first. Keshawn Jones knocked the ball loose on a pass attempt which Suwannee’s Austin Smith recovered that led to a 6-yard Jaquez Moore score and a 7-6 lead on Matthew Gookins’ extra point with 3:51 left in the opening period. SHS finished with just 96 yards rushing and 159 yards of offense on 48 plays, led by Taylor’s 34 yards rushing.
But Bailey ripped off a long run on the Raiders’ first play and two plays later, Gentry Sparks scored from 42 yards out to put Rickards ahead for good.
After the Raiders extended that lead to 20-7 late in the second, the Bulldogs put together their best drive.
Ty Wehinger, who saw his most action of the year at quarterback, completed two passes on the drive to Wesley Jones for first downs sandwiched around a pair of runs, including a first down scamper. Then with 26 seconds left in the half, Taylor took a handoff while in motion and found Moore open behind the Raider defense.
“Ty’s a kid that just keeps preparing and keeps preparing and we had the opportunity to try and take advantage of it tonight,” Hall said.
“Anytime you play a team that is very fast and aggressive to the ball, a lot of times you can take advantage of that whether it’s play-action or misdirection. The offensive line protected great, we had a great exchange and Tyree made a great throw.”
But back within a score at the half and with momentum seemingly on their side, the Bulldogs continued a rough trend.
For the third straight week, Suwannee trailed by just one score at the break before a second-half surge buried the Bulldogs. During that stretch, SHS has been outscored 63-14 after intermission.
“We have not played well coming out in the second half and we have to figure out why that is,” Hall said. “We finished the first half, but we’ve got to be able to come out and get a stop and drive down and score.
“You resort all options for sure (to try and fix the second-half blues). We’ll get creative every way we can, but it comes down to fundamentals once again.”