CRESTVIEW – Outside the Niceville locker room and next to the team bus at Crestview High School stood a crowd of Eagles players, coaches and fans, all listening to the Fort Walton Beach-Choctaw game being broadcast from a Sheriff’s truck radio.
The Eagles had done their job, defeating Crestview in a running-clock 42-7 rout Friday night to move them to 3-2 in District 2-6A play. Their playoff fate was now out of their hands and solely in the control of the Vikings, who were deadlocked at 31 against Choctaw late in the fourth quarter. Needing the Vikings to pull out the win to secure the second district playoff spot behind Champion Navarre, the Niceville crowd waited with baited breath as the Vikings mounted a late drive.
SLIDESHOW: View photos from the game >
Then across the airwaves came the news of Blake James’ fifth and game-winning touchdown pass, and a loud “Touchdown” cry permeated the elated crowd.
Niceville had survived two must-win scenarios, and because of its 34-3 win over Fort Walton Beach two weeks ago the Eagles will end on the right side of a tiebreaker with 3-2 Fort Walton Beach.
Moments earlier, when their playoff chances were cloudy, Niceville coach John Hicks gathered his team in the postgame huddle with a message.
He wanted his players to make sure they knew that no matter the outcome of Choctaw-FWB, he was proud. Proud of the way the Eagles played Friday. And proud of the way they had bounced back from an 0-2 start, winning three straight against Mosley, FWB and Crestview to keep their playoff hopes alive.
“This is as good as we can play and I thought everybody played their best game tonight across the board,” Hicks said. “After the way we started the season, it’s hard to build a team late in the year. But we did that and we’re a team now.”
And it showed on both sides of the ball Friday night.
On offense, Tayjon Culley racked up four rushing touchdowns – two each half -- on 106 yards to lead a backfield that piled up 229 yards.
“It was just a great effort by the (offensive) line,” Culley said. “They opened up huge holes for me and I used my vision to get through them.”
Under center, Andrew Mitchell chipped in a 53-yard touchdown to Tyre McCants, who caught 73 of Mitchell’s 95 yards.
Defensively, the Eagles shut down Micah Reed -- who entered the contest with 1,155 rushing yard and 14 scores – to the tune of 60 rushing yards, his lowest rushing total of the season. The stifling in-your-jersey run defense, which featured eight or nine guys in the box for most the game, marked just the second game Reed has been held below 100 yards and scoreless all year. Holding Reed in check meant the offense struggled, amassing only eight first downs on 56 yards rushing and converting only 4 for 12 third downs.
The Eagles also harassed Crestview quarterback Dakota Davis, who was just 15 of 27 for 147 yards to go along with a score – a 28-yarder to Dakota Dean – and an interception.
“The defense played well,” Hicks said. “After Choctaw, we were embarrassed and we went to work and turned things around.”
The defense especially set the tone early, when the Eagles dominated every facet of the game en route to a 14-0 halftime lead.
Stacking the box, the Eagles limited Micah Reed to just 46 yards on eight carries. The bulk of that came on a 42-yard run late in the first half and set up an Austin Smith 41-yard field goal try late in the half, but Crestview’s only chance to scratch the scoreboard in the opening 24 minutes of play came up just short.
With its defense – which benefited from six Crestview penalties for 40 yards – holding the Bulldogs to just 81 yards of offense (37 passing, 44 rushing) and three first downs, it was only a matter of team before Niceville’s offense started clicking.
And a bad snap on a Crestview punt certainly helped get the ball rolling.
Taking over after Smith was tackled at the Bulldogs’ 9 on the errant snap, Niceville bounced back from a scoreless first quarter and capital-ized with a 3-yard touchdown run from Culley.
Then, given prime field position at the Bulldogs’ 39 after another Crestview three-and-out, Culley tacked on another 5-yard score halfway through the half to give the Eagles a 14-0 halftime lead.
And the momentum never stopped.
Mitchell and McCants connected on a slant route over the middle for a 53-yard score to begin the half, and the floodgates opened.
Culley later added a pair of scores and Tyler Head ran for a touchdown for the Eagles, who were a Dakota Dean 28-yard touchdown recep-tion away from putting up their first shutout in two years.
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Seth Stringer at 850-315-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SethSnwfdn.