ORANGE PARK - Ridgeview High football fell behind early and mounted a second half comeback, but the effort fell short at Baldwin won a 34-25 non-district game in the season opener for the Panthers and new head coach Matt Knauss.
“It was just a play here and a play there that makes all the difference and we’re in it.” said Knauss.
Things looked good for Panther Blue as the defense stood up a three and out Baldwin opening drive, only to have the punt return fumbled and turned right back to the Indians deep inside Panther territory. The defense held as Baldwin went for a fourth and 20, on the 20 and failed.
On the next drive, the Panthers were in good shape as wideout Denali Lindo came down with one of several outstanding catches on the night and kept the Panthers on the prowl. With the ball on the Baldwin 37, a sack had the Panthers facing third and 22. On an option keeper, quarterback Max Monroe attempted an end around and went down hard. The team was forced to punt, and Monroe was showing signs he was not 100 percent.
“Our quarterback (Monroe) was hurt on that first drive and tried playing through. Our backup is still not back from a pre-season injury and our other backup, RJ Branham, only took minimum reps in practice,” said Knauss..
After the punt, the Indians went deep to the left side and found a streaking receiver for a 58 yard touchdown for a quick 7-0 lead.
Ridgeview countered with a handoff to Monroe who sailed the ball out to Lindo for a touchdown reception and good point after, 7-7.
The Indians next drive was capped with another Indian fourth down attempt, thwarted by Jermaine Walker for a loss of several yards. Ridgeview’s drive was killed off by several penalties and a punt.
At 8:21 until the half, Baldwin found the back-left corner of the endzone open for a 13-7 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff return, another Panther miscue, as the kick was fumbled and recovered by Baldwin.
“If we fumbled the ball, Baldwin seemed to come up with it every time,” said Knauss. “If they fumbled it, it was like opposing magnets. The ball just never bounced to us and we couldn’t seem to come up with it.”
A Monroe interception handed the ball back to the Indians. Once again, Baldwin’s Xavier McGriff would come down with the ball in the corner of the endzone for a 20-7 lead.
Ridgeview’s counter-drive was stalled and punted with 4th and 14. Baldwin would run the punt back to the Panther 12 yard line with 1:46 left to the half. Baldwin again found a receiver in the endzone to go up 27-7 with :29 seconds until the half.
The kickoff return was one shoestring tackle away from a score as Glen Miller took off and almost made a game-changer. Enter RJ Branham who ran out of time in the half.
In the second half, Baldwin was held to a single third quarter score and Knauss started finding the sweet spot with his intricate run-pass option offense. Branham orchestrated several key passes to Lindo, and leaned on Jermaine Walker to pound the rock inside. Rey Gonzalez scored at 3:58 in the third, 34-13 with a failed point after kick.
Branham, due to his limited play at quarterback, had to run off the field after each play, to get the next call. The extra running took it’s toll and showed after several drives. Branham toughed it out and after an Indian turnover, Lindo took the ball right, reversed and split Indian defenders for another Panther score, missed point after kick, 34-19 with 10:07 to play.
On the counter, Baldwin was stopped. The Panthers drove deep, then used a trick play as Branham handed off to Lindo, who found Glen Miller open, 34-25. The two-point conversion failed and the Panthers would only get the ball one more time. with 1:28 remaining. Branham looked deep for his receiver, only to have the fatigue take its toll. The ball rolled off his hand on the throw, went short and was intercepted by the Indians. Baldwin went into victory formation and killed the clock for a 34-25 Panther loss.
“We graduated 22 seniors last year. We just have to fix the mental mistakes, get them to listen to the coaches and we can easily fix all of this” said Knauss. “I’m proud of these kids because they never quit. If we stop that drive before the half, it changes everything. I still think we are a playoff Football Team. We get a few players back this week and we’re going to be okay.”