ZEPHYRHILLS — For Zephyrhills, Friday night's Class 5A region semifinal against Green Cove Springs Clay was doomed by 12 bad minutes. The Bulldogs led by four points at halftime but allowed 28 unanswered points in the third quarter and were not able to come back despite a fourth-quarter rally in a 52-49 loss.
"The third quarter really hurt us," Zephyrhills coach Nick Carroll said. "We didn't stop them on defense and we didn't move the ball very well. But that's a good football team."
The Bulldogs (10-2) will be haunted by Blue Devils running back Aundre Carter. He scored four touchdowns, including two in the third quarter, and gained 278 yards on 37 carries. On the first drive of the third quarter, Carter carried on eight of the 10 plays and accounted for 61 of 62 yards. He scored on a 10-yard run that make the score 31-28, Clay. That was the Blue Devils' first lead and they never gave it up.
"(Carter) is a load and just keeps on rolling," Carroll said. "We did well in the first half against him and then he started wearing on us. We just didn't tackle as well."
With the Bulldogs unable to get anything going in the third, Clay (9-3) extended its lead. Quarterback Caleb Eason threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to make it 38-28. Carter then broke a 58-yard TD run. And at the end of the quarter, Christian Swilley scored on a 50-yard run and the score was 52-28.
That's all the points Clay would score, but they turned out to be enough.
Zephyrhills mounted a fourth-quarter rally. Zac Masci scored on a 1-yard run to start the fourth quarter. Clay then fumbled and the Bulldogs turned that into an 11-yard shovel pass touchdown from Charles Harrison III to Bryce Sanders, and the lead was cut to 52-42. With three minutes left, Harrison connected with Tyreese Wigfall on a 15-yard touchdown.
But Clay was able to get two first downs and run out the clock.
Things couldn't have started any better for Zephyrhills. On the first play of the game, Elijah Thomas ran 52 yards to the Clay 26. Two plays later Harrison hit Jaquan Sheppard on an 8-yard pass to make it 6-0.
On the second drive, after a Clay field goal, Thomas was at it again. He broke another 52-yard run on the first play that put the ball on the Blue Devils' 16-yard line. Two plays later, Harrison connected with Tre'Pavis Mobley on a 16-yard TD reception. Then things settled down.
Clay cut the lead to four points to start the second quarter, but Cartrell Strong ran the kickoff back 75 yards to make it 21-10. Carter then scored on a 5-yard run. That was answered by a Harrison scramble for a 10-yard touchdown.
Clay came right back with a touchdown in the final minute on a 41-yard Carter run and the Bulldogs had a 28-24 halftime lead.
Thomas finished with seven carries for 141 yards. He carried the ball once in the second half. Harrison threw for 257 yards.
"I'm very proud of our football team," Carroll said. "Clay has a lot of playoff experience and we were able to play with them."