PORT ST. JOE _ Dwayne Griggs set an early beat and the Tiger Shark defense kept in time and the result was a return to the postseason.
After four seasons of watching the playoffs from home Port St. Joe earned a trip back with a 17-3 defeat of visiting West Gadsden Friday at Shark Field.
The victory improves Port St. Joe to 6-2 overall and 2-0 in District 1-1A, clinching no worse than second in the league with a showdown at home against Liberty County, also undefeated in district play, for the district title next Friday.
The Panthers fell to 5-4 overall and at 1-2 in district play drop out of the playoff picture.
“I am proud of our kids,” said Port St. Joe coach Chuck Gannon. “We have stuck together, faced a little adversity, but we are heading to the playoffs.
“We know next week we will have our hands full with Liberty County, but we also know we have to play 24 strong and have each other’s backs. We have done that all year long.”
Port St. Joe, facing a Panther team that operated nearly all night in three- and four-receiver sets, played tenacious defense.
Hurrying West Gadsden quarterback Deonte Jackson every time he dropped to pass, the Tiger Sharks held the Panthers to 215 total yards, more than 90 of that coming on the final two series as West Gadsden tried desperately to get back in the game.
Jackson finished 10 of 26 passing for 165 yards, more than half coming in the final five minutes, with one interception.
That interception was critical.
Early in the second quarter of a scoreless game Jackson sent a pass into the middle of the field where Griggs, timing his move perfectly, stepped in front of a receiver at the Port St. Joe 23 to intercept and dashed all but untouched to the end zone.
Drew Lacour added the extra point and Port St. Joe had a 7-0 lead.
“Defense wins ball games for you sometimes when the offense is struggling,” Gannon said. “That was the case tonight. That Griggs interception really set a tone.”
West Gadsden added a 27-yard field goal shortly before the half to pull to 7-3 but the Panthers went into the locker room frustrated by opportunities lost.
Twice the Panthers took passes into the end zone only to have the touchdowns erased by penalties.
A screen pass for a score was nullified when all five offensive linemen beat the receiver into the defensive backfield for an ineligible receiver call.
A deep sideline route for a touchdown came back due to a holding penalty.
“We were just a couple of plays away tonight,” said West Gadsden’s first-year coach Joey Striplin. “I’m proud of these guys for competing so late into the season and having a chance at the playoffs because that hasn’t been the case in recent years.
“But give credit to Port St. Joe. They have a great team and it was their night. They made the plays.”
Griggs, who led the Tiger Sharks in rushing with 60 yards, put Port St. Joe in full control with a 4-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
The play was set up by a 37-yard dash by Jak Riley after a short punt gave Port St. Joe the ball at the Panther 46.
An extra five yards was added for a horse-collar tackle and Griggs finished off the quick strike.
Lacour added the extra point and also a 31-yard field goal with 5:43 remaining – after being wide left from 30 yards in the third period – to complete the scoring.
The game marked the return to Port St. Joe of running back Jarkeice Davis and wideout T.J. Williams after being suspended all season due to off-the-field issues.
Gannon said the team voted to accept the two back and Davis had 57 rushing yards and several big plays on defense while Williams had a big 24-yard reception and contributed to the stellar play of the defensive backfield.
With Cole Cryderman’s 37 yards – he was the workhorse of the first half - and Riley’s 55, Port St. Joe had six backs rush for 209 yards, four contributing 37-60 yards.
Lacour was 3 for 5 passing for another 56 yards.