By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News
A 66-yard return of the opening kickoff, followed immediately by a 25-yard touchdown pass, may have let the air out of the homecoming balloon for many high school football teams. But not Gardendale, at least not on Friday night.
The Rockets didn’t panic, and reeled off five touchdowns in the first half as they rolled past a speedy Huffman team 42-30 on Friday night.
The night belonged to running back Jordan Howard, who has been nursing nagging small injuries all season long. There were no lingering effects that could be seen on this night, though, as the senior running back scored four touchdowns and ran for 172 yards on 14 carries — that’s 12.3 yards per rush attempt. It was his biggest game of the season to date.
“I’m mot all the way back to 100 percent yet, but I’m close enough,” Howard said.
gardendale had to deal with speedy Viking running back Tevin Neal all night, both on scrimmage plays and on kicks. He started things off by taking the opening kickoff back 66 yards to the Rocket 25.
From there, quarterback Isaiah Core found Jalen Walton wide open in the end zone for the touchdown just 20 seconds into the contest, and the Gardendale homecoming crowd was silenced before it had even settled into its seats.
The Rocket sideline, however, wasn’t rattled.
“It didn’t worry me at all,” Howard said.
“There was never any panic at all,” head coach Chris Fancher said. “I was very proud of how our team handled that.”
Instead, they responded by marching 81 yards on the ensuing drive for a score of their own. A 47-yard pass from quarterback Hunter Crook to Jesse Blackburn — the start of a big night as well for the tight end/linebacker — put Gardendale within reach, and Howard capped it off with a 3-yard scoring run.
Later in the period, Huffman struck when Jerry Smoot intercepted a Crook pass intended for Blackburn. Smoot made a leaping catch, then ran 38 yards back for a touchdown to put the Vikes back on top 12-7. (Huffman, incidentally, failed on every conversion attempt of the night.)
That’s when the Rockets’ scored three touchdowns in a row.
Howard had his longest run of the night near the end of the first quarter, dashing 52 yards for the score. Then on the second play of the following drive, it was Blackburn catching a pass again — but this time he was on defense, picking off Core’s pass at the Viking 41. Two plays later, Crook connected with Gabe Hill for 46 yards and a TD with 13 seconds left in the first period.
Midway through the second quarter, it was Blackburn’s time to shine again. He caught two consecutive throws from Crook: a 48-yarder to bring the ball to the Huffman 11, then the rest of the way on the next play.
The Vikings had an answer this time with a 7-yard touchdown pass from Core to Jacolby Fitts, but the Rockets almost equaled that on the subsequent kickoff return, as Juan Jackson ran it back 70 yards to the Huffman 27. Three plays later, Howard scored again, this time from the 15 with 1:44 left in the half.
Huffman tried an onside kick to open the second half but was unsuccessful, which gave Howard a chance to do all the work on the next possession. Over three plays, two of them for 22 yards each, Howard marched into the Viking end zone for the fourth and final time of the night, just 68 seconds after intermission.
The game bogged down for the rest of the third quarter, as both teams struggled to mount any attack. The Vikings finally made progress toward the end of the period, and scored just 42 seconds into the fourth on a 3-yard dash by Beal.
Huffman tried mightily to stage a comeback, but two drives in the final period ended up with turning the ball over to the Rockets on downs. They finally did score again with just five seconds left in the game, on a 33-yard pass from Core to Fitts, but by that time it was merely window dressing.
Fancher knew that the Vikings defense, with their speed and physical play, would be a tough nut to crack.
“We truly didn’t know how they were going to line up defensively — I didn’t even make up blocking sheets because I was concerned,” he said. “They are as good up front defensively as anyone we’ve played, including Vestavia. They’re just very good athletes.”
Blackburn finished the night with three pass receptions for 106 yards and the touchdown, plus the interception.
Crook was 6-for-11 passing with two interceptions and 123 yards. All totaled, the Rockets gained 432 yards on offense, with 309 coming via the ground game.
Christian Riley led the gardendale defense with nine tackles, a quarterback sack and a fumble recovery. Brody Doss added seven tackles and Damian Boys had six plus an assist.
Core was 15-for-28 with two picks and 169 yards for Huffman (2-4, 1-3 region).
The Rockets (3-3, 1-3) face their biggest game of the season so far next Friday, as they travel to Shades Valley. A victory is virtually a requirement — indeed, Gardendale will likely need to win out on its region schedule — if there is any hope of a post-season.