TARPON SPRINGS — Tarpon Springs scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, including Daniel Davis' 77-yard pick-6, and opened its season with a 27-13 win over visiting Clearwater.
Davis also added a 61-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter and ended his big night with 140 offensive yards.
“I'm feeling good,” the senior said of the Spongers' performance. “We never gave up, played hard until the buzzer and played our Tarpon ball.”
Davis is in his first year with the Spongers after transferring in from Gibbs High and coach Ron Hawn said the senior's debut came as no surprise.
“He's a good player,” Hawn said. “That was some good stuff. He can do things on defense, he can do things on offense and he can do things on special teams. He's a great player and we're real happy he's here.”
The Spongers opened last season with a 58-0 blowout victory over Clearwater, but the Tornadoes showed they are a much-improved squad in 2014. Junior quarterback Garrison Bryant went 18 of 35 for 352 yards and two touchdowns through the air, but Spongers defenders also managed to snag three game-shifting interceptions.
Clearwater entered Friday a week after nearly beating Hillsborough High in the Kickoff Classic and appear to be turning a corner under second-year coach Donnie Abraham.
“I think Clearwater is going to surprise a lot of people this year,” Hawn said. “I think they are a good football team. They had us on the ropes for a while.”
It wasn't until the final quarter when Tarpon Springs finally pulled away to avoid an early season upset.
The Tornadoes took their lone lead of the night at 13-7 when Bryant hooked up with Rasim Avmet from 21 yards out late in the first half. That advantage didn't last long, though. Tarpon Springs answered on its next offensive snap with Davis' 61-yard catch-and-run from quarterback Brandon Casler. The Sponger signal caller finished his efficient night 12 of 18 for 167 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Tarpon Springs had to wait nearly two quarters until its next score when Davis ran back his pick-6 to the house to give the Spongers a little breathing room at 21-13.
“Once I picked it I saw I couldn't go straight so I cut back and let my blockers block for me,” Davis said of the play. “I got some big blocks by J'Von [France] and Mitchell Wilcox.”
Wilcox, a USF recruit, laid a solid hit on Bryant right before the junior let the ball fly down the right sideline.
Turnovers played a sizeable role in determining Friday night's outcome, as Tarpon Springs held a huge 4-0 edge in that category. The Spongers recovered a fumble in the first quarter, then got picks from Keivonte Warren, Leonel Hernandez and Davis.
“We pride ourselves on that,” Hawn said of flipping the field. “Keep the ball and take the ball away. That's what we do.”
One area of considerable improvement from Clearwater was on its defensive front. The Tornadoes committed to stopping star running back Michael Ford and did an effective job considering the senior's explosive abilities.
Ford picked up 83 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and added 23 more on three catches. Only one time did the senior workhorse manage to break a run of 10 yards or longer, coming on a 19-yarder in the fourth.
“We've got to get a little better on the offensive line,” Hawn said of the running game as a whole. “We've got big guys that do some good things, but we've got to get them all on the train, get them all moving the same direction at the same time, and then we'll be fine.”
Clearwater defenders weren't the only thing slowing Ford down, though. Penalties brought back big gains and hurt Spongers drives all night long. Tarpon Springs finished with 15 infractions for 115 total yards.
“We've got to clean up a lot of stuff,” Hawn said. “We got a lot of penalties and we've got to get that fixed. It was brutal.”
Clearwater caused its fair share of yellow flags to hit the turf as well, committing 11 penalties for 58 yards.
Tarpon Springs will play its second-straight home game next Friday against Osceola. The school will be honoring its inaugural Athletic Hall of Fame class at halftime.
Clearwater hosts its home opener next week and gets another solid test in St. Petersburg High.
CW - 0 – 13 – 0 – 0 --- 13
TS - 7 – 7 – 0 – 13 --- 27
TS – Ford 3-yard run. PAT kick (Zervos) – 1st Quarter (4:10)
CW – Lehman 76-yard pass. PAT kick (Lehman) – 2nd Quarter (7:57)
CW – Avmet 21-yard pass from Bryant. PAT kick failed – 2nd Quarter (2:31)
TS – Davis 61-yard pass from Casler. PAT kick (Zervos)– 2nd Quarter (2:16)
TS – Davis 77-yard INT return. PAT kick (Zervos) – 4th Quarter (7:28)
TS – Mehas 20-yard pass from Casler. PAT kick blocked – 4th Quarter (2:21)
CW – Blanch (7-50), Lemons (7-16).
TS – Ford (20-83, TD), Davis (6-57).
CW – Bryant (18-35 for 352, 2 TD, 3 INT).
TS – Casler (12-18 for 167, 2 TD).
CW – Lehman (5-125, TD), Avmet (3-58, TD), Jones (2-62), Rhodes (3-54).
TS – Davis (2-83, TD), Mehas (2-22, TD), France (2-29), Ford (3-23).