PETAL – After a 3-0 start to the 2023 season, Hancock coach Neal Lollar was looking for a statement game on the road against a good Class 7A program.
And, boy, did he get one.
The Hawks hit on just about every cylinder they had, and maybe some they didn’t know they possessed in an emphatic 46-7 victory over Petal Friday night at Panther Stadium.
In the process, Hancock (4-0) has put itself in the conversation as one of the teams to beat in Region 4-6A. The Panthers, meanwhile, are searching for answers with their second straight defeat after a 2-0 start.
“That was a big one,” said Lollar. “To come in here, in a big environment, big stadium at a 7A program. We were fortunate tonight to get some stuff done. Our kids played hard, they prepared well.
“I’m interested to see if we can do more. We’re going to ask more from them. They know that, so that’s what we’re going to require.”
If one was to nit-pick, it could be said that the Hawks flubbed more than one point-after conversion, and they actually punted once, for a modest 36 yards.
Of course, the fact that Hancock had multiple opportunities for PATs speaks volumes, and in every other way possible, the Hawks played about as perfect a football game as anyone is likely to play this season.
“We’re putting people on notice,” said junior running back Zach Gullung. “Nobody really thought we could come in here and do this, no one at all. So I think if we keep working like this, who knows how far we can go.”
Hancock racked up 506 yards of offense, including 291 on the ground, most of that from Gullung, a compact back at 5-foot-9, 195 pounds. Gullung ran 24 times for 194 yards and three touchdowns, and he caught two balls for 25 yards and another score.
“I’m going to do whatever it takes to win,” said Gullung. “Anything to get the first down, get the touchdown. Anything to win.”
Senior quarterback Dylan Moran ran the Hancock offense like a maestro, completing 17 of 22 passes for 215 yards and throwing for four touchdowns, and his only run of the night was a 12-yard scramble to convert a key third down late in the first half.
“Everything we saw on film, we abused tonight,” said Moran. “The run game was there, our line was playing excellent – they were not missing anything tonight – then once you hit them with the run, it sucks up the defense , then passes start opening up.
In all, Hancock rang up 26 first downs and were good on 4 of 5 third downs, and the Hawks scored a touchdown the only time they went for it on fourth down.
“That’s huge,” said Gullung. “To constantly get first downs, chew up the clock, keep their defense out there, beat them up and get them tired. That’s a big part of what we do on offense.
The fun started for Hancock almost from the beginning. The Hawks got a stop after one harmless first down, and wasted no time getting their offense cranked up.
On his second carry of the night, Gullung burst over left guard and bowled over numerous defenders on his way to a 53-yard gain to the Petal 6-yard line.
The Panthers knocked Gullung back for losses of 2 and 3 yards on successive carries, but on third down, Moran hooked up with senior Neil Acker for an 11-yard scoring pass. The snap for the conversion was bobbled, but the Hawks were on the board with a 6-0 lead.
“It’s all set up with our front,” said Lollar. “Our front, our wings and our tight end set everything up for us. And when they play like they’re supposed to, not just with physicality, but with technique, and they do a great job ”
Petal answered with its best drive of the day, moving from the Panther 40 to the Hancock 21 on pass plays of 9, 12 and 9 yards from sophomore quarterback Eli Causey to senior Cayden Burger.
But on third-and-2, then fourth-and-1, the Panthers were stopped on running plays, and the Hawks took over the game for good at that point.
Hancock showed off its offensive repertoire on a 10-play, 80-yard march, overcoming a holding call inside the Panther 10-yard-line, with Gullung getting the call from 2 yards out on fourth down.
The game was still in balance until late in the second quarter, when Hancock dropped the hammer. Taking over at their own 9-yard line, the Hawks drove relentlessly down the field on a 10-play scoring march.
Gullung had chunk plays on the ground of 10 and 13 yards, senior Jeffrey Hopgood had a 19-yard pickup on a reverse, and it was Gullung who got the score on a swing pass from Moran from 22 yards out.
The killer for Petal came after the kickoff, as junior Dante Taylor ran down an errant throw from Causey to set the Hawks up at their own 31.
Gullung picked up 11 yards on a running play, the Hawks got 15 more on a pass interference penalty, then ran the hook-and-lateral to perfection. Moran threw a 7-yard out patter to Acker, who flipped the ball to Gullung trailing the play and dashed 36 yards for the score.
“We tried to run it earlier, but it didn’t work, and I ended up up catching it and running it in,” said Gullung.
“We had that drawn up all week. They only had one corner on the outside on Neil, so we knew it was going to be open. It was a great throw, great catch. Nothing but grass in front of me. I think that broke their spirit, getting to 26 right before halftime was huge.”
Any thoughts of a Panther comeback in the second half were over pretty quickly after Hancock took the first possession of the third quarter and drove 55 yards on seven plays , with Moran passing to Acker for a 9-yard touchdown pass.
“He and I put countless hours of work in the offseason, and it shows,” said Moran. “Any time you can come on the road and beat a team like Petal, it feels great.
For the game, Acker had eight receptions for 94 yards and two scores.
After another defensive stop, the Hawks rolled down the field again, this time moving 88 yards on seven plays with Gullung scoring from 8 yards out on a toss sweep around the left side.
Petal got a consolation score on a nine-play, 61-yard drive, with Causey passing to senior Trey Ratcliff, but Hancock’s backups mounted a touchdown drive to cap the night, with junior Aidan Taylor scoring on a 3-yard run.
Hancock will head back on the road next week to battle Vancleave, while Petal is also at home, facing Long Beach.