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Defense, special teams carry No. 6 Bulldogs

BOONEVILLE — Defense and special teams.

When the chips were down for No. 5 Mississippi Gulf Coast against upset-minded Northeast Mississippi, the Regulators and special teams proved the difference in an 18-16 nail-biter over the Tigers.

Greg Fortenberry (Fr., Columbia/Columbia) blocked a punt with 1:37 to play, and Dylan Wasson (Fr., Madison/Germantown) drilled the game-winning field goal with 58 seconds left for the victory. The Bulldogs trailed the entire second half until those final those final ticks on the clock.

“I’m really, really proud of our kids for their fight all the way until the end,” Gulf Coast coach Jack Wright said. “That really shows the character of our football team. We talked about it before the game because I had a feeling it was going to be close. We talked about playing 60 minutes, we talked about going into overtime, double-overtime. It didn’t get to that, but it felt like an overtime game.”

Gulf Coast stayed perfect after a pair of road games to start the season, while Northeast falls to 0-2.

After punter George Caratan (So., Pacific Palisades Calif./St. Thomas More) pinned Northeast deep at the 13-yard line with 3:24 left, the Bulldogs defense forced the Tigers five yards deeper on three snaps. That set up Fortenberry’s block, which gave the Bulldogs the ball at the 12.

Gulf Coast ran the ball three times to force Northeast to take timeouts, setting up Wasson for a 25-yard field goal.

Northeast drove the ball across midfield before Baker’s pick sealed the victory.

“We were playing man-to-man,” he said. “We played man-to-man the whole game because Coach Shu (defensive coordinator Brett Shufelt) loves to do it. The receiver ran a drag route, and I undercut him. I tried to take it to the house.”

Gulf Coast was able to kneel once to run out the clock on a game the Bulldogs appeared to be in control of early. They took a 12-0 lead in the first quarter.

Wasson hit a 40-yard field goal in the first four minutes, and a Northeast returner bobbled the ensuing kickoff out of bounds at the 1-yard line. Two plays later, Hydee Barlow (So., Forest/Scott Central) and C.J. Williams (So., Taylorsville/Taylorsville) met in the endzone to tackle the Tigers running back and make it 5-0.

“The offensive line kept trying to cut me, and I wasn’t going down like that,” Barlow said. “I gave him a swim move and I was in the backfield. I came off the ball hard, used hands and just played full speed like my hair was on fire.”

Gulf Coast went 52 yards on six plays on its best drive of the night later in the quarter. Xavier Evans (Fr., Laurel/Laurel) scored from 2 yards out to end it.

Northeast began battling back with a pick-6 in the second quarter. John Ellis Murrah nailed a pair of field goals, the second coming in the final play of the half. He made a third in the third quarter for a 16-12 lead.

The Bulldogs turned the ball over four times. The Tigers scored 13 of their points off those turnovers.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Cam Thomas (So., Picayune/Picayune) took a sweep, reversed field and ran 23 yards. That helped set up Wasson’s second field goal, this one from 35 yards with 8:23 to play.

He got to play hero a few minutes later when he nailed the winning kick.

“He’s a true freshman right out of high school,” Wright said. “He’s right out of high school, but he’s got a lot of leg talent. That’s not a guarantee there with the game on the line and a young kicker, but it was a great job by him of banging it through.”

Northeast had more possession than the Bulldogs, but Gulf Coast survived thanks in part to Caratan. He averaged 47.7 yards on seven punts, with three kicks inside the 20 and a net of nearly 40 yards.

“I thought we really dominated special teams,” Wright said. “They hit three key field goals on us, but other than that our coverage teams and our kickers were great. George Caratan had a huge night tonight keeping them deep. I really thought that flipped the field in our favor.”

Gulf Coast finally plays a home game next week when archrival Pearl River makes the short trip from Poplarville. Kickoff at A.L. May Memorial Stadium is set for 7 p.m.

For more information on MGCCC’s 10 intercollegiate athletic teams, follow @MGCCCBulldogs on Twitter and MGCCCBulldogs on Facebook, and go to mgcccbulldogs.com.