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Day of the (Jacksonville) Dolphins
Football games are meant to be decided over the span of 60 minutes, but in Saturday’s Pioneer League showdown between Jacksonville and Dayton, the Dolphins only needed seven minutes to get the job done.
Jacksonville scored 19 points during that span in the fourth quarter and that was enough for the Dolphins to post a 19-14 victory, earning JU its first football championship before a record crowd of 5,263 at D.B. Milne Field.
“It was great to see so many people here in the city come out and support us to win a championship. That was great,” JU coach Kerwin Bell said after the game. “Our players loved it and even though it was a little ugly at time - it wasn’t the prettiest game on our part - I think the fans saw an exciting game and the way we play.”
It especially wasn’t pretty in the first half for the Dolphins (9-3, 7-1). They allowed Dayton to score on its opening possession. JU quarterback Josh McGregor threw a pair of interceptions, and Dolphin receivers dropped several easy catches. JU defenders let several would-be interceptions slip through their hands as well.
When Dayton (9-3, 6-2) scored a second touchdown late in the third quarter to take a 14-0 lead into the final 15 minutes, it appeared JU’s chances of its initial league title would be put on hold for at least another year.
But that’s when JU’s fortunes took a positive turn.
Middle linebacker Allen Fennell started the momentum swing with an interception and returned it 14 yards to the Dayton 1-yard line where quarterback Josh McGregor scored two plays later, though JU missed the extra point. When Dayton punted on its next possession, Elliott Finkley returned it 54 yards for score - his school-record third punt return for a touchdown this season - and JU trailed only 14-12. The Dolphins couldn’t go for two after a 15-yard celebration penalty that put the ball at the 17-yard line and missed the extra point.
But the two missed tries became irrelevant when JU scored a third TD on its next possession.
After Finkley gave them a first down at the Dayton 37 on a 16-yard punt return, JU drove to the Flyers’ 7-yard line where on third-and-five, the Dolphins called an double-handoff, end-around to Geavon Tribble. As the defense headed in one direction, Tribble sprinted the other way into the end zone for the winning points.
“That was a high-risk play because there are so many things that can go wrong with a play like that,” Bell said. “But I told this team a long time ago that I’m going to go for things like that and give our players a chance to make plays.”
Dayton still had two more possessions to push across a go-ahead touchdown, but both drives ended in interceptions, the first by Oscar Johnson at the Dolphins 14 and the second by Bryan Valdez at the JU 9 with 27 seconds left in the game. That set off a wild celebration by JU players, coaches and fans on the field and the eventual Gatorade drenching of Bell and several assistant coaches.
“The game was on the line. I had to come through for my team,” Johnson said of his interception. “We never lost faith that we could come back, even trailing by a couple touchdowns in the fourth quarter. We knew if we just stuck together we could pull this out. We’ve overcome adversity in other games this year. We knew we could do it again.”
For senior cornerback Robson Noel, a three-year starter who endured three non-winning seasons with the Dolphins before this year, the championship win had special meaning for nine departing seniors.
“This means a lot because we went through some tough times in the past,” Noel said. “It’s a great way to end my career here at JU. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
The win earned Jacksonville the Pioneer League’s automatic berth in the Gridiron Classic against the Northwest Conference regular-season winner, Albany. The game will be held on the Great Danes’ field on Saturday, Dec. 6.
Day of the Dolphins
By Jeff Elliott, The Jacksonville Times-Union (FL)
Photo Credit: Rick Wilson/The Jacksonville Times-Union