Posted: 6:04 pm Saturday, December 10th, 2011
By Jeff Greer
BRADENTON — Last night’s game felt like a video game.
There’s a mode in sports video games that sports columnist Bill Simmons writes about — I can’t print what he calls it on our high school sports blog — where the video game simply decides that the human player cannot beat the computer. At all. No chance.
In Dwyer’s heart-breaking, 19-14 loss to Bradenton-Manatee, it felt like everything in the world was conspiring against Dwyer. There was a handful of bad breaks and some questionable officiating, a few miscues and a lot of what-ifs. And none of this is intended to take away from Manatee, which, considering the circumstances, made enough right moves to earn its second trip to the state-title game in three years.
“It’s a football game,” Dwyer defensive tackle Mike Minns said as he walked off the field, providing an enlightening perspective in a heated moment. “There’s nothing we can do about all that. We had a good year.”
Here’s my game report from last night. I had about 15 minutes to write it. That’s why I like having a follow-up blog. I’ve corrected a few quotes and elongated them, explained situations further and hopefully shed more light on last night’s game.
The fumbles. No two plays were more agonizing on the Dwyer sidelines and in the stands than two second-quarter incidents.
In the early stages of the second quarter — and I haven’t seen the tape, so I can’t identify the players involved — a Manatee receiver caught a short pass on the left side of the field. From my vantage point on the sideline, the player appeared to catch the ball, turn and take a step. He got absolutely tattooed by a Dwyer defender. The ball came loose. Neither of the officials in position to make the call … made a call. Instead, they huddled with every official on the field before ruling the pass incomplete.
Because high school football doesn’t have a review booth, and calls can’t be reviewed on film the next day, we’ll never truly know what happened. Manatee eventually turned it over on downs in that series, but who knows what a big-hit-and-fumble would do to momentum.
Then, in the same quarter, Dwyer ran a misdirection screen to the left. Tight end Malik Brown caught the pass square and turned up field. He needed 12 yards for the first down, and it appeared that he got them — and that he was down. The ball came loose. Manatee’s Willie Smith did what any smart player would do — he scooped it up and sprinted, 56 yards to the house. Dwyer’s coaching staff was livid. That touchdown proved to be the difference in the game.
The penalties. Again, it’s very difficult to argue penalties or turnovers if you don’t have the benefit of in-game replay. We’ve been spoiled by television broadcasts and upgraded technology, to the point we question every single play’s validity.
That said, the officials made their impact on the game. I counted five flags that directly impacted scoring opportunities or big plays. Four were against Dwyer, and all of them were holding.
(1) Cortney Lowery had a big first-quarter run deep into Manatee territory. Flag. Holding. Again, I couldn’t see the replay, so I can’t argue the validity.
(2) Faton Bauta threw a fade to Clint Stephens in the right corner of the end zone. Stephens was dragged down. Flag. Pass interference. Looked like a good call, helped Dwyer score its first touchdown.
(3) Second-and-11 from the Manatee 46. Huge gain for Dwyer, first-down yardage. Flag. Holding.
(4) Third-and-26 from the Dwyer 39, same drive. Bauta somehow manages to find time and throw complete to (I think) Clint Stephens for a first down. Flag. Holding. Dwyer punts the ball away.
(5) First-and-10 from the Manatee 21. Bauta takes a quarterback keeper down the right side, breaks multiple tackles and extends into the end zone. Touchdown, Dwyer. Flag. Holding. Dwyer scored four plays later.
Here’s the exchange between a reporter and Dwyer coach Jack Daniels after the game:
Reporter: “Overall, was there a comfort level when it came down to the game? Did you feel like it could be taken away from you?”
“I would never say that because I don’t have the money to pay a fine to the state,” Daniels said. “I thought our kids played their butts off like they have all year, and I’m proud of them.”
Bauta. Which brings us to Faton Bauta, Dwyer’s quarterback. Someone asked on Twitter who he reminds me of. I hate to use his name in this situation, but I had to say Tim Tebow. Who else would run 24 times for 168 yards and two touchdowns, be 8-of-20 for 89 yards passing and almost single-handedly carry his offense to a winning score? It’s almost too easy.
Beyond the bullish running style and his build, Bauta also has similar problems throwing the ball as Tebow. There’s nothing wrong with the way Bauta releases the ball. He throws nice passes. They have zip when they need to, they have float when they need to. But he missed almost all of his down-field throws. His accuracy will need to improve. He struggled hitting open guys last night.
To be a college quarterback, Bauta will need to find that touch. Jupiter’s Tyler Cameron, who is built similarly to Bauta and compares well to him, has the same issues. These are kinks that college coaching and practice can work out. Last night’s missed throws hurt, but Bauta made up for it with his running will. That’s something you can’t coach.
“The best player on the field,” Daniels said. “If that wasn’t obvious tonight, then I don’t know what was. Faton has made more progress in the past six football games than any football player I’ve been around. He’s a fantastic kid and his work ethic is unbelievable. He’s going to have big things ahead of him.”
The final play. There was some discussion in the Sun-Sentinel’s game report about the last play (that mattered). To set it up … It was third-and-5 at the Manatee 27. Dwyer ball. A bit more than a minute to go. Manatee leading 19-14. Bauta pushed the line but got dropped. Hard. No gain. Didn’t get up. For a while. Trainers and coaches went out. He stayed down.
The rule is that when a player is injured on a play, he cannot re-enter the game on ensuing play. It just so happened to come at an awful time.
Faced with fourth-and-ballgame, Dwyer drew up a pass. Backup quarterback and kicker Bobby Puyol threw a strike to Johnnie Dixon, who couldn’t handle the pass at the 19-yard line. Dixon was devastated, and rightfully so. It looked like his body momentum made it tough to hold onto the pass. He’d made two other fantastic catches, though, earlier in the game, which Daniels pointed out. Hard to blame a kid in those situations.
“That was just one play in the game,” Daniels said. “Bobby came in and made a good throw. Johnnie dropped it, but he made several key plays to keep us in the game. It was just a play in the game, that’s it.”
Final thought. Ultimately Manatee did what it needed to win the game. There’s no taking that away from the Hurricanes, who, by the way, have one of the best playing atmospheres I’ve seen in Florida. But it was hard to ignore the air on Friday night, which felt like it was mixed together just right, just a certain combination that conspired against Dwyer, costing the Panthers a heart-breaking loss. It was their second devastating loss in two consecutive state semifinals.
But unlike a video game, there’s no reset button. Dwyer instead will re-calibrate for next season. The Panthers will lose several stud seniors, including Bauta, but they do return a ton of talent. There’s no reason to believe they can’t return to the state semifinals next year.
“It’s a three-hour bus ride after your kids just played their hearts out,” Daniels said. “That’s what it is. We’ve had it three out of the last four years, and it’s painful … It hurts. It hurts our kids. It hurts me. A lot of people affected the outcome of the football game that don’t put in the hours in that the kids do and it’s wrong.”