PANAMA CITY BEACH — Big plays for Arnold's football team have been conspicuously and frustratingly absent the past two months.
The Marlins rediscovered their explosiveness behind the play of quarterback Cody Saunders on Friday night, however, and the sophomore powered Arnold's 38-0 win over Port St. Joe in the Marlins' final game of the year, at the Mike Gavlak Sports Complex.
Arnold, which resides in District 1-5A, ended a six-game losing skid and finished the season 4-6. Port St. Joe, which captured the District 4-1A title this season, watched its four-game win streak end as the Tiger Sharks dropped to 7-3.
“”We didn’t come to play,” said Port St. Joe coach Chuck Gannon. “We’d played two pretty tough games back-to-back in West Gadsden and Liberty County and I don’t know if they looked at their record and thought it would be a stroll in the park or what.
“But that is a Class 5A team and it has better be a wake-up call because (Friday’s playoff opponent) South Walton plays a lot like Arnold and have some good athletes.”
Saunders completed 12 of 15 passes for 218 yards over three-plus quarters, and he sparked the Marlins with an 11-for-13, 204-yard passing performance in the first half that ended with Arnold leading 24-0. Saunders threw his 11 completions before halftime to seven different receivers.
“We came out firing off the ball,” Saunders said. “We wanted to do it for our seniors and make it a big win for us as a family.”
Saunders generated his team’s first touchdown with a remarkable play midway through the first quarter. Under pressure, Saunders rolled out to his left but could not locate an open receiver. He reversed field and kept his eyes downfield until Ray Peed got open behind the PSJ defense, and Saunders delivered a 49-yard throw for a 7-0 lead with 7:49 left in the opening quarter.
PSJ’s defense could not corral Saunders in the second quarter as Arnold added to its lead. Saunders hit Torri Cotton on a route out of the backfield with a 15-yard touchdown pass for a 14-0 advantage, and Saunders’ 15-yard sprint up the middle provided the Marlins with a 21-0 lead with 3:50 remaining in the half.
Arnold placekicker Austin Peffers closed the half with a 29-yard field goal for a 24-point margin.
Saunders said earning the victory was important to give Arnold's players something to build upon headed into the offseason.
“That’s exactly what our coaches said in the locker room,” said Saunders, who added 88 rushing yards on 13 carries before exiting the game early in the fourth quarter. “This is the foundation for next season.”
Wearing camouflage-printed uniforms with “Blue Army” written across the back and American flags displayed on each shoulder, Arnold coupled its big-play ability with a stout defensive effort to turn back PSJ.
Arnold defensive lineman Dominique Batiste ended the Tiger Sharks’ first possession on the first play when he timed the snap perfectly, disrupted the play in the backfield and forced a fumble, which the Marlins recovered.
The Marlins turned back a pair of PSJ drives in their territory in the first half. PSJ turned the ball over on downs on respective drives at Arnold's 33- and 28-yard lines before halftime.
Troy Williams increased Arnold’s lead to 31-0 when he stepped in front of Drew Lacour’s pass and returned the interception 32 yards for a touchdown with 8:15 left in the third quarter.
Saunders recorded his third touchdown pass with a 14-yard throw over the middle to Connor MacKenzie for a 38-0 lead with 1:49 remaining in the third quarter. The rest of the game was played with a running clock.
The Tiger Sharks host District 3-1A runner-up South Walton next Friday in the Region 2-1A semifinal.
“The team knows the type of situation we are in, you are one-and-done,” Gannon said. “Whoever gets after it and makes the fewest mistakes will win. They have a good quarterback and some good wide receivers.
“They run the ball a little bit and they are very well coached. This is their first playoff game so they are going to be excited. We are going to be excited.”
Star News Editor Tim Croft contributed to this report.
Want to go?
Port St. Joe hosts South Walton 7:30 p.m. ET Friday in a Region 1-1A semifinal tickets. All tickets are $8, as mandated by the Florida High School Athletics Association.