Gulfport has a knack for the dramatic.
After rolling to a Shrimp Bowl victory last week, Gulfport needed fourth-quarter heroics Friday to knock off nationally ranked Petal 15-12.
“Our kids fought the whole game. Even when we fell behind we didn't give up,” GHS coach Eddie Pierce said. “That's what we preach every week. I'm very, very proud of them. Our defense just played super.”
Gulfport suffered from inopportune drops all night — at least until they needed the catches most.
Petal (1-1) looked to be in control late. After going ahead 12-7 on a 13-yard touchdown from Tanner Estill to Natorian Watts, the Panthers forced a three-and-out.
Petal proceeded to tick off four minutes on the clock, marching across midfield and deep into Gulfport territory on a nine-play drive. On the 10th play, however, Petal fumbled a receiver reverse and Gulfport regained life with just 2:10 remaining.
“I thought the defense played great all night. It was a bend but don't break defense,” Gulfport assistant coach Ron Brewer said. “They're just a bunch of guys who go out there and work every night. They did an outstanding job.
“We told them if they played sound defense they'd win the game and that's what we did.”
Gulfport took over on its own 28 and mounted a decisive nine-play, 72-yard scoring drive.
Quarterback Cleveland Ford completed 6 of 9 passes on the drive, connecting with Sean Daniels, Trey Scott, T.Q. Newsome and finally Jalen Knight on a 6-yard touchdown to the left front corner of the end zone. The two connected again on the two-point conversion, pushing Gulfport back ahead 15-12.
“There's just a trust with in the wide receivers. We all gel with each other,” Ford said. “They're going to drop passes and I'm going to make bad throws, but they stayed behind me and I stayed behind them.”
Despite the huge touchdown, Gulfport still had to hold on for a rough finish. After an incompletion on the first play, Jordan Wilson connected with Estill down the middle of the field for a 54-yard pass-and-catch to put the Panthers at Gulfport's 4.
“We had people around him, he just made a good catch,” Pierce said. “Those things happen. But then our defense stiffened up.”
Following an incompletion, Wilson looked like he had put Petal back ahead with a short touchdown pass to Estill over the middle, but Petal was flagged for illegal procedure, wiping the touchdown off the scoreboard. The next snap got away from Wilson for a 16-yard loss and the final two heaves to the end zone were batted away by Gulfport defenders to preserve the win.
“We knew those guys were pretty good with the (Clarion-Ledger) Dandy Dozen running back (Stephon Huderson) and (Estill). I thought our defense stiffened when they had to. I'm proud of our guys and proud of the win,” Pierce said. “They're nationally ranked. We talked about that with our kids, what a great opportunity it is to play these guys. “It's just a huge win for Gulfport.”
The game got off to a rocky start for Gulfport. After the first drive ended in an interception, Petal marched 54-yards down the field and Estill sliced through the defense practically unscathed for a 7-yard touchdown. Petal missed the ensuing extra point.
The two teams traded field position for much of the first half.
In the second half, Petal opted to go with Wilson in Estill's place at quarterback. The change resulted in a quick punt on the third quarter's opening possession. Facing a third-and-15, Ford aired out a pass down the sideline for Daniels. The play resulted in a 62-yard gain. Three plays later, Ford connected with Trey Scott in the front left corner of the end zone for a 2-yard score to go ahead for the first time, 7-6.
Gulfport will host De La Salle out of New Orleans next Friday. The visiting Class 3A school went 9-2 a year ago with a 45-0 win over Hancock.