ROCKLAND – Rockland’s punted ball soared at a nearly 90-degree angle before landing a couple yards in front of the line of scrimmage and taking several bounces.
Instead of falling on it to rule the play dead, the Bulldogs watched Grace’s Bray Skinner scoop up the ball and score the Grizzlies’ first touchdown on about a 10-yard punt return in the second quarter. It was the theme of a game in which hints of an upset bid disintegrated because of Rockland's excruciating mistakes and Grace’s second-half steamrolling.
The Grizzlies (4-1, 2-1 1A DI District 5-6) were ahead 20-14 at halftime and went on to win 48-14 on Friday at Rockland (2-4, 1-0 1A DII District 5-6).
PHOTOS: Grace-Rockland football
Grace’s punt return touchdown was its first of two scores in the second quarter’s first six minutes, when the Grizzlies went ahead 12-8.
The Grizzlies’ second TD was set up by a 40-yard screen pass to Connor Mickelson on 4th-and-25 that put the Grizzlies 5 yards from the end zone.
“It’s one (play) all the guys like,” Grace coach Mark Dodge said. “That one’s really hard to defend. They were coming at us with just a lot of pressure, and (we) kind of felt like nothing was going right, so we needed a big play that could help us get through that one.”
After the teams traded touchdowns to end the first half, Grace had its second non-offensive touchdown as Mickelson took an interception to the house to put the Grizzlies ahead 28-14 midway through the third quarter.
Mickelson had a five-touchdown performance. He tallied a game-high 149 yards rushing on 16 carries.
“Connor’s a stud,” Dodge said. “When things were a little tough, he kept everyone’s heads up and we stayed tough.”
Mickelson’s biggest rush of the game followed his defensive touchdown, a 43-yard scoring scamper that was launched with a broken tackle that elicited a thundering thump that reverberated across the field.
That gave Grace a 34-14 lead with 1 minute, 14 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
“Their big offensive line really wore us down,” Rockland coach Gerry Hunter said. “We just ran out of gas there at the end.”
At the start, the Bulldogs played like they thought they could beat a higher classified squad, holding Grace to a three-and-out to start before scoring on their second possession.
Rockland picked up the last 26 yards of that touchdown drive on two pass hookups between Braden Permann and Levi Farr, giving Rockland an 8-0 lead with 6:16 left in the first quarter. The duo also connected on a 46-yard pass play for a touchdown in the second quarter.
But Grace’s punt return TD set off a Grizzlies scoring spree that lasted the rest of the game. Rockland was inside its own 5 when it made the short punt, but the botched return didn't give the Bulldogs defense a chance to keep the shutout intact.
Considering the realities of having a smaller roster and smaller players than Grace, Hunter was still pleased with team’s performance.
“We came out and played really well at the beginning,” Hunter said. “We hung in there. We didn’t quit.”
Grace hosts Lost Rivers next Friday, while Rockland plays Oct. 18 at North Gem.