The Fort Meade Miners traveled to arch rival Hardee County on Friday for the start of the 2011 season. It wasn’t what the Miners had hoped for, as they encountered a motivated Wildcat bunch. Mix that with key turnovers, injuries and a general lack of execution, and you have the recipe for a 21-6 loss in the first game of the season.
Things started well enough for the Miners as Mark Turner recovered a first-series fumble from the Wildcats and Fort Meade quickly marched to the Cat 27 yard line. But a holding call, procedure penalty, and two incompletions derailed the drive and gave Hardee the ball on downs at the Wildcat 26 yard line.
On first down, it appeared the Miner defense had corralled the Hardee back for a loss, only to see him escape and dash for a 74 yard scoring jaunt. With the kick, the Miners trailed 7-0 with 6:13 left in the first quarter.
On the Miner’s next possession, Jay Smith was intercepted, with Hardee returning to the Miner one-yard line. Fortunately for Fort Meade, a personal foul on Hardee gave the ball back to the Miners.
Two plays later, Smith connected with D.K. Davis for a 60 yard catch-and-run to the Hardee 15 yard line, only to have the drive stall out there. The Miners called on Jack Cortez, who booted a 31 yard field goal through the uprights and cut the Miner deficit to 7-3 with 2:41 to go in the first quarter.
Hardee appeared to be headed for a score early in the second quarter, driving to the Miner 14 yard line. But on what looked like a touchdown pass, Miner defenders stripped the receiver of the ball, recovering in the endzone for a touchback.
The Miners fortune would turn quickly, when on first down, Smith threw deep into coverage. The pass was picked off and returned 40 yards for the score and Hardee now led 14-3.
Continuing on their rough track, the Miners wasted good field position on the kickoff by fumbling the ball back to Hardee at the 50 yard line. The Cats would be held on downs but the Miners couldn’t produce on their last drive of the half.
Disaster struck Fort Meade again early in the second half as Smith threw his third pick of the night, giving Hardee possession at the Miner 18 yard line. The Cats scored two plays later to go up 21-3 with 9:31 left in the third quarter.
The frustrations continued as two long Miner drives came up empty in the third and fourth quarters. A 10-play drive ended on a Cortez punt and a 16-play drive was stopped on failed field goal attempt.
Hardee did give the Miners one more opportunity, fumbling the ball at the Cat 37 yard line. But Fort Meade would stall at the 14, and Cortez would boot his second field goal of the night, cutting the Miner deficit to 21-6. But that would be it for Fort Meade, as Hardee ran out the clock and secured their first win over the Miners since 2007.
Miner head coach Jemalle Cornelius was frank in his assessment of the Miner effort. “I think the effort was there-just a lack of execution,” said Cornelius. “Hardee has a good team and won in the trenches. We turned the ball over and we never bounced back.”
When asked about the Miner rushing effort of a meager 83 yards, the coach responded, “You can’t win if you can’t rush the ball. It’s all about balance and when they know we can’t run the ball, it limits our options.”
Injuries are already rearing their ugly head, as starting nose tackle Edgar Perez went down with a broken ankle against Mulberry, leaving a void on the defensive line. The Miners inserted big Jerome Cooper in the spot, but he left late in the game against Hardee with what appeared to be a knee injury.
With the lack of depth and a tough schedule ahead, including three 7A clubs and 6A Bartow just in September, the Miners will be challenged to step up.
“We’ve got a lot of guys going both ways,“ declared Cornelius. “That’s not an excuse. We just have to dig deep and keep going. We knew about the schedule at the start so it’s not an excuse either. It won’t change, so we can either hang our heads or go play out the season.”
To do that, the Miners will need strong leadership from both the coaching staff and a solid senior class. Patience by Miner fans will also be necessary, as younger guys will be counted on to develop and the Miners on both sides of the ball find their footing. And it’s still very early.
“It’s just one game,” said Cornelius. “We’ll find a way to regroup. I think our seniors have a lot of pride and will find a way to pull this thing together.” More than ever, the Miners need the “twelfth man” of fans, cheerleaders and band to fully support them over the long haul ahead this season- starting this Friday.