PANAMA CITY BEACH — After a pair of lopsided district losses the past two weeks, Arnold came into Thursday’s non-league affair with Port St. Joe desperate to get back into the win column. The Marlins did just thanks in large part to a defense that came up with five sacks and forced five PSJ turnovers.
Arnold jumped out to a big lead and held off a late Tiger Sharks rally to take the 24-14 victory and improve to 4-5 on the season. Port St. Joe fell to 6-3 with its second straight loss. The Marlins will wrap up the regular season with another Thursday game at Gavlak Stadium against Florida High. The Tiger Sharks return home to take on North Florida Christian on Friday.
“We played hard tonight and got back to making our community proud,” Arnold coach Josh Wright said. “I thought we played with a different passion against a great football team. (The Tiger Sharks) have got some real great players that refused to quit and they did a great job fighting back in the second half.
“We had guys like Tristan Patterson, Branson Stuckey, Jarrett Dutton, and Dylan Gandy that really played well in a senior leadership role in a game against a great program. Not many teams beat (Port St. Joe) unless they’re pretty good, so we felt like we have a decent football team.”
Cade Ledman completed 8 of 15 passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns with an interception for Arnold, while Slater Sills rushed 23 times for 83 yards and a touchdown. PSJ quarterback Josh Butts hit 7 of 16 for 65 yards and rushed for 22 yards and a touchdown, but he also accounted for all five Tiger Shark turnovers with three interceptions and a pair of fumbles.
Jasmin Thomas rushed eight times for 48 yards and completed 1 of 2 passes for 55 yards and a touchdown, while Kendre’ Gant caught four passes for 107 yards and a touchdown.
The Marlins got on the board first with 5:23 left in the first quarter when Ledman exploited a busted PSJ coverage by hitting a wide open Gandy over the middle of the field for a 57-yard touchdown to go up 7-0. A 27-yard field goal by Javier Elias made it 10-0 with 7:35 left in the second quarter, and Ledman found Clay Parker with a perfectly-placed ball on a fade route in the left corner of the end zone with 22.9 seconds on the clock to give the Marlins a 17-0 halftime lead.
Arnold took advantage of a fumble on Port St. Joe’s first possession of the third quarter to go up 24-0 on a 2-yard Sills touchdown run. The Tiger Sharks tried to rally in the fourth quarter with a pair of touchdown drives, as Butts scored on a 6-yard touchdown run with 10:13 to play and Russell Russ added the two-point to play to make it 24-8.
After an Arnold punt, PSJ scored two plays later when Thomas took a pitch from Butts and tossed a halfback pass deep down the field to Gant perfectly in stride for a 55-yard score. The two-point play failed, leaving the Marlins up 24-14 with 5:56 to play.
The Marlins quickly went three-and-out and punted it back to the Tiger Sharks, who took over at their own 45-yard line with 4:12 remaining. Arnold’s defense shut the door, however, with four straight negative plays, including three straight sacks. Dutton dropped Butts for the first sack on second down, with Patterson bringing him down on third and fourth down to give the ball back to the Arnold offense.
It was an impressive bounce back performance by a Marlins team that struggled mightily the last two games in a 41-27 loss to Pensacola and 52-3 home defeat at the hands of Pensacola. Even beyond execution, Wright said he wanted to see his players show some more fight on Thursday night.
“We came off two heartbreaking losses to two very good football teams,” he said. “We didn’t play in those games. We tapped out and we didn’t want to do that tonight. (West Florida) has a good team, but we realize we didn’t give our fans what they deserve, which is better passion and heart, and we did that tonight.”