BROOKSVILLE - Hernando celebrated a happy homecoming Friday night at Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium against archrival Nature Coast Technical thanks to reversing some recent trends.
The Leopards came into the ninth series meeting against the Sharks leading Hernando County teams in four dubious categories after four tilts: most turnovers allowed (16), turnover ratio (minus-9), most penalties assessed (43) and most penalty yardage (403).
Though HHS (2-3 overall, 2-0 Class 5A, District 6) was flagged a game-high seven times for 65 yards, the Purple and Gold played mistake-free football with 53 offensive snaps for a game-high 198 yards in taming the Sharks (2-3 overall, 2-1 5A-6) for the fourth straight season, 20-13.
Both teams understood how high the stakes were. The winner of the past seven NCT/Hernando games has eventually reached the coveted state playoffs.
Interestingly for the error-prone Leopards, in the two games they've won the turnover battle - Weeki Wachee and NCT - they've won twice.
Both teams also played short-handed without one of their leading weapons.
NCT sophomore DeShawn Smith, who came in as the county's fifth-leading ball carrier with 299 yards and team-leading five touchdowns, was hampered by a swollen knee. He was limited to three quiet carries for nine yards.
Leopard senior Ra'shaad Hart, who arrived with 320 rushing yards and two scores, was limited to two second-quarter carries for 30 yards before hobbling off with an ankle injury. He never returned to the playing field.
The one item third-year NCT skipper Charles Liggett said in the pregame chatter that he wanted desperately to avoid was spotting Hernando any early points.
But that's exactly what the Sharks did.
On the game's second offensive snap, starting quarterback Ryan Quigley hurled a lateral toward C.J. Maner, but when the ball skipped across the turf, it became a live ball as an alert Steven Delaine recovered for a 7-yard loss.
Starting from the Shark 32, HHS took advantage of the game's lone turnover traversing 32 yards in six plays.
The game's initial score was set up by a 21-yard pass completion from the first of three Leopard signal callers, Tyler Kline, to Derrell Holland at the NCT 4-yard line.
Three plays later, Kline, who came in with 10 carries for minus-27 yards, scored on a quarterback sneak from a yard out.
Kline's first-ever varsity touchdown was followed by a poor center snap on the attempted extra point. Hart's two-point conversion failed with 8:48 showing, 6-0.
Two HHS personal fouls - one after the PAT conversion attempt and another on the ensuing kickoff - were sandwiched between a 15-yard return.
From the Leopard 27, NCT needed eight plays to knot the score. Maner, who finished with a game-high 49 rushing yards on 20 carries, tied the score behind his third touchdown of the season following a 1-yard burst.
Placekicker Austin Lacy, who came into the game 6-for-6 on point-after kicks, was restricted by a poor center snap resulting in a missed boot, 6-6 with 5:23 showing.
After the teams traded the first two of 12 punts on the evening, HHS navigated 40 yards on eight plays for the first of two second-quarter touchdowns to break the game open.
Hart's second carry - a 19-yard scamper to the Shark 5 - set up the go-ahead score.
Three plays later, senior Mondrell Brown scored from a yard out. Brown's second touchdown this season was followed by the first of two successful PATs by senior placekicker Habib Garcia with 9:09 left in the first half, 13-7.
After the Sharks went three-and-out, HHS mustered a 10-play, 79-yard scoring drive. Kline, who finished 4-of-11 passing for 83 yards, clicked on a key 17-yard aerial to senior Troy Grant.
NCT hurt its chances with an ensuing pass interference penalty against Grant.
Facing third-and-10 from the Shark 32, Kline connected with an unexpected hero, Ty'Quan Carr, on a flair pass. Carr, who arrived with one reception, scampered 32 yards untouched with Kline's team-leading and county-leading fourth touchdown pass.
Carr's first-ever varsity touchdown was followed by Garcia's second PAT, 20-6, with 4:40 left in the half.
Against a fired-up defensive line led by Delaine and Jesse Gaudin, and ever-present linebackers in Khalil Bennett, Jeremiah Jackson, Hunter Maclachan and Justin Roberts, the Sharks were stagnant on offense.
In 23 first-half snaps, the Sharks were restricted to 42 net yards, or 1.83 yards per play.
On special teams, Roberts kept the Sharks at bay with seven punts, averaging over 36 yards per kick.
With the clock winding down, NCT managed to piece together an 11-play, 85-yard scoring effort in the fourth quarter.
Quigley, who finished 2-for-6 for 46 yards, connected on back-to-back 23-yard passes to Jermaine Green and Rohan Blackwood to the Leopard 5.
On the next snap, Quigley scored his first touchdown of the season. Lacy's perfect PAT with 1:14 closed the scoring.
Lacy attempted an onside kick, but Hernando recovered and ran out the clock to remain unbeaten in 5A-6.
"Trust me, the last thing we wanted to do was spot them points," explained Coach Liggett, who slipped to 14-11 lifetime including 0-3 versus Hernando. "One of the things that's hurt us is we haven't played well inside our own 30. It happened again tonight."
On the game's difference, "Every game we've gotten beat, the other team's D-line has outplayed us," noted Liggett. "And give their punter credit, he kept pinning us on our end of the field."
Liggett didn't make excuses about not having the explosive Smith, who scored three touchdowns and a two-point conversion in the upset over Pasco.
"DeShawn wasn't healthy; you saw that," he said. "He couldn't cut. We need that 1-2 punch with him and Maner. Sure not having DeShawn hurt us."
Looking ahead, "Right now, we have to focus on the second half," stressed Liggett. "After we look at film, we'll see what we did well and try to correct some things. Right now, it's more important for us to try to get better than worrying about the district race."
From the home locker room, the Leopards' 6-foot-7 right tackle Connor Foradas beamed afterward, saying, "We tried to come out and just pound away at them; obviously, I think that worked well."
On the game's significance, "It's a huge turnaround game for us," said the 17-year-old Foradas. "We can still have a big season. I thought the key is we've got to stay on our blocks."
Delaine drew a parallel to how the Leopards practiced prior to playing the Sharks.
"This week it all started with practice," pointed out the 16-year-old Delaine. 'We transferred what we did in practice to the game."
On the game's defining moments, "Recovering that first-quarter lateral was huge," he said. "It was a game-changer. We grabbed the momentum right off the bat. And I thought Ty'Quan's touchdown catch kept us going. That turned out to be a huge touchdown."
On the game's importance, "Nature Coast's our rival, but this was huge for our team, especially our seniors," said Delaine. "Personally, I thought I played pretty good, but I'm like everybody else, I could have played better."
With the win, HHS' second-year mentor Dwayne Mobley climbed to 8-8 including 2-0 versus NCT.
"Our defensive coordinator (Shawn Bingham) provided a great scheme," pointed out Mobley. "Defensively, our guys were running around all night making tackles. This all started with two great days of practice."
On the keys to victory, "Our first touchdown was big," Mobley said. "That lateral allowed us to play on a short porch and gave us some much-needed early momentum."
On Carr's game-winning TD catch, "We have a lot of good receivers it was just Ty'Quan's chance to shine this time.
"I'm most proud of the team's effort," declared Mobley. "We had a guest speaker talk to the boys. He spoke about passion. I really think our guys listened. They had to. Give credit to Nature Coast, we knew they'd play hard and they did.
"Those guys didn't give up when they were down 19-0 to Pasco and they didn't give up tonight."
On what the future may hold, "Every game we win is big," pointed out Mobley. "Right now, it's about winning one at a time. We certainly can't afford to look past anybody. On Monday, we'll start getting ready for South Sumter. Our coaches did a tremendous job of getting our kids ready this week. We've got to continue that next week."
Hernando 20, Nature Coast 13
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
NCT 6 0 0 7 --13
HER 6 14 0 0 --20
HER - Kline 1 run (Hart run fails).
NCT - Maner 1 run (Lacy kick fails).
HER - Brown 1 run (Garcia kick).
HER - Carr 32 pass from Kline (Garcia kick).
NCT - Quigley 5 run (Lacy kick).
First Downs 10 9
Atts./Rushing Yds. 44-120 39-115
Comp./Pass Atts./Int. 2-6-0 4-14-0
Passing Yds. 46 83
Total Offense 50-166 53-198
Fumbles/Lost 3-1 0-0
Return Yards 5-82 3-85
Punts/Avg. 5-36.2 7-36.1
Penalties 4-34 7-65