Summary: Baker County handed Menendez its first loss of season as both schools kick off District 5-5A play.

MACCLENNY — Menendez traveled beyond the St. Johns County border for the first time this season to face an opponent that wanted to maintain its self-respect.

Baker County (3-1, 1-0) blitzed the Falcons 48-21 Friday night at Memorial Stadium in a contest that was marred by Menendez mistakes.

The Wildcats were a state finalist a year ago but entered Friday’s District 5-5A contest having lost a winnable game and eking past its two other opponents. As unconvincing as the Wildcast may have been, the perception they were double-digit underdogs on their home field riled them up enough to produce their best performance of the season against the state-ranked Falcons.

The No. 8 Falcons never led and stared a double-digit deficit of their own for the final 30 minutes of the game.

“Early on things didn’t go our way,” said Menendez coach Kyle Skipper. “I told the kids all year long, ‘there is going to be a time someone punches you in the face and how are you going to respond?’ Tonight, I think we swung back. We got right back in the game, and then they threw another punch. We had to (try to) swing back again.”

Menendez (3-1, 0-1) deferred to the second half, a decision that put the football in possession of a Baker County offense that had scored 34 points in three games.

The Wildcats went 60 yards on only five plays. Quarterback Alex Bowen ran for a 17-yard touchdown— the first of his three — with 9:50 remaining in the first quarter. The visitors’ first chance to respond ended at midfield.

Facing third down at its own 49, Menendez aimed to air it out. Two receivers streaked up the sideline with nary a Wildcat within 5 yards of them. The pass was inaccurate and Menendez was forced to punt.

The magnitude of Menendez’s third down mistake was magnified when the Falcons punted into the back of a blocker. Baker County’s Robert Baker fell on the football at the Falcons' 8. Three plays later, Bowen attempted to dive in on third-and-goal from the Menendez 1, but he lost the football.

Senior offensive lineman Matt McDuffie casually brought the football into his arms like a little boy sneaking a treat from the cookie jar. McDuffie’s fumble recovery made it 14-0 less than five minutes into the game.

Baker County took a three touchdown lead before the Falcons responded with two second-quarter touchdowns. Michael King connected with Noah Gillian on fourth-and-goal for an 8-yard touchdown. Tye Edwards got loose for a 38-yard touchdown run on Menendez’s next possession to make it a one-score game with 8:40 remaining in the second quarter. Edwards finished with 17 carries for 125 yards and a touchdown.

The senior was stopped for 1 yard, or fewer, six times.

Kenny Logan ran 17 times for 81 yards and a touchdown. Afterward, he hobbled toward the sideline with ice on his left ankle and a grimace on his face.

“We talked about slowing them both down,” said Baker County coach Jamie Rodgers. "They are kind of predictable in certain situations. We give our guys keys on defense. Tonight, their eye discipline was fantastic. They went exactly where they were supposed to be.”

The Falcons finished with 231 rushing yards on 43 carries. That is good enough for most teams. But, considering the Falcons make their mischief on the ground, and their passing game was not enough to make the Wildcats venture away from their defensive keys, it was a figure that Rodgers and the Wildcats could live with.

District 5-5A looks to be anyone’s game this fall. Menendez is much improved from the team that finished 8-4; Baker County has a handful of returnees; Clay has made the playoffs in each of the last five years; Orange Park (3-1, 1-0) beat Clay 29-28 on Friday night and Palatka is 3-1 after a 39-25 district win over Ridgeview.

“I tell our kids all the time, ‘To win the first one, it means you’re at least tied for first,’” Rodgers said. “People have to catch you then. Now they have to beat you. They are all big, but the first one is really big, especially against a top (eight) in the state.”

The Wildcats led 35-21 at intermission. It’s a lead that did not appear insurmountable until it’s considered the Wildcats have not allowed a point in the second half a game this season.

That trend continued on Friday night as Menendez turned the ball over on downs twice and were intercepted. However, it was the Falcons’ first drive of the second half that may have been more damaging.

Trailing 35-21 the Falcons faced third-and-two inside Baker County territory. Officials flagged the Falcons for a false start penalty, then threw two flags for unsportsmanlike conduct against the Falcons.

The Falcons went from having two chances to sustain the drive and cut their deficit to one score to being forced to burn a timeout and punt the football. Skipper called the timeout to calm down his players who were incensed officials threw two flags for language that did not involve expletives.

Baker County’s Scooby Graham ran for a pair of second-half touchdowns to balloon the margin of victory. The sophomore ran 17 times for 194 yards and set up two of Bowen’s three touchdown runs.

As the Falcons trudged off the field, Skipper shouldered the blame for the situation in the third quarter. The first-year coach was already looking ahead to next week’s showdown with undefeated Ponte Vedra County.

"I really thought they were physical. What a strong football team they have. Sometimes, opposing styles match up in different ways," he said.