For seven games this year, no opponent had been able to rattle Palmetto’s defense. The Tigers’ defense had been unparalleled in Manatee County, surrendering fewer than 160 yards per game and only five total touchdowns.
Braden River needed less than five minutes last Friday to finally knock Palmetto off balance. In less than five minutes and 12 plays, the Pirates marched 80 yards from their own 20-yard line across the Tigers’ goal line. Even when teams have scored against Palmetto, they’ve typically needed a chunk play or two to cover ground. Braden River did it without a 20-yard play.
“We didn’t expect that,” linebacker Andrew Duncan said. “We were surprised because no one’s done that to us in so long and it just kind of woke us up.”
He paused for a moment.
“But then again,” he continued, “when we woke up the communication wasn’t there.”
Only one of Braden River’s first seven drives last Friday in Palmetto ended with a punt. Five went for touchdowns. A sixth ended with an interception in the end zone. By the beginning of the third quarter, the Pirates hadn’t just punched the Tigers — they had knocked them out. Palmetto’s defense, which entered the game allowing fewer yards and points per game than anyone else in Manatee County, never figured out how to stop Braden River’s offense, only stringing together consecutive stops once a running clock began and the Pirates emptied their bench.
The test for the Tigers’ defense on Friday will arguably be even more difficult when Venice visits Harllee Stadium at 7:30 p.m. for a Class 7A-District 11 finale. The Indians hung 42 on Braden River in Venice on Oct. 14, then shut out Lakewood Ranch 62-0 last Friday. In seven games this season, Venice has scored 365 points for an average of more than 52 per game.
I think we’ve shown all year we can play with anybody.
Dave Marino, Palmetto head coach
But Palmetto (6-2, 3-1) is hopeful that its dud against the Pirates was just a blip on an otherwise sparkling defensive resume. Three of Braden River’s touchdowns went for more than 25 yards, which the Tigers partially chalk up to miscommunications. A similar performance against the Indians (7-0, 4-0) would mean another blowout loss and a second straight season without a postseason appearance.
“If you’re not good enough, we can live with that,” head coach Dave Marino said, “but let’s put ourselves in a position where we have a chance.”
The final stretch of the season is already playing out in a frighteningly similar way as last fall for Palmetto. A promising start to 2016 was also derailed by a 35-point, shutout loss to the Indians before another blowout against Venice officially ended the Tigers’ playoff hopes. In both games, an early lead for Palmetto’s opponent paved the way for a lopsided finish.
It was impossible to ignore how familiar Braden River’s opening drive felt Friday. The Pirates weren’t moving the ball with explosive plays — only two of the 12 plays during the first drive even cracked 15 yards. Instead, it was a methodical drubbing. The Tigers only forced one three-and-out against the starters on the next drive, and then two of the next five plays were touchdowns of 52 and 73 yards.
In less than 15 minutes, the most important game of Palmetto’s season had become a 21-point deficit.
“That was the disappointing thing for us as coaches,” Marino said. “How quickly we lost our confidence, and it led to more mental mistakes. It was more we were mentally beat than we were physically beat.”
The Tigers huddled around Marino on the practice field at Palmetto High School after Wednesday’s practice as Marino tried to assure them of their chances against the Indians. All but one of Braden River’s touchdowns Friday, he felt, could be pinpointed to a miscommunication somewhere at some point during the drive leading to the score.
The Pirates very well may be better than Palmetto, he said, but they’re not 35 points better.
“Some people didn’t have their head in the game,” Duncan said. “They were letting the size of the game get to them.”
Now it’s made Friday’s game even bigger.