FULTON — Mississippi Gulf Coast got off to a sluggish start Thursday night at Itawamba and paid the price for it.
The fourth-ranked Bulldogs fell 23-12 to the Indians in the season opener at Eaton Field. Gulf Coast managed just 169 yards of total offense in the loss.
"Coach (Sean) Cannon did a terrific job tonight. He had his guys ready to play," Gulf Coast coach Chad Huff said. "I think we could have run our offense a lot better. I know we're capable of better."
The Bulldogs return to action next week in their home opener against previously top-ranked East Mississippi. The Lions lost 27-25 at Jones.
Gulf Coast had won nine straight against Itawamba, including the Indians last two games. The teams played in the final week of the 2015 regular season and first round of the playoffs, both at Perkinston.
The trip to Fulton totally flipped the script. Itawamba jumped out to a 17-0 first-quarter lead before the Bulldogs started to rally.
The Bulldogs tried to rally from a 17-0 first-quarter deficit. All-American kicker Joshua Rowland (5-10, 190, So., Madison Central/Madison) nailed a 40-yard field goal with 11:10 to play in the first half.
Pinned deep in their own territory with 4:14 to play, the Bulldogs had their best possession of the night. They marched 97 yards in 15 plays, culminating with a 1-yard touchdown pass from Kalen Whitlow (6-1, 190, Fr., Northview/Dothan, Ala.) to Lester Wells with 26 seconds left in the half.
Whitlow completed 17 of 29 passes for 111 yards and led the Bulldogs with 66 yards rushing on 10 carries. He was sacked five times, however.
"I thought he did some really good thing," Huff said. "He was positive throughout the whole game. He made some plays. We've got to get better around him and clean up some things he did."
The Bulldogs blocked an Itawamba field goal in the third quarter, and after another miss used the ensuing field position to pin the Indians deep. Tyler Flathau (6-0, 190, So., Sacred Heart/Hattiesburg) had a 41-yard punt downed inside the 1.
On the next play, Mike Boykin (6-6, 280, Fr., Carrolton/Carrolton, Ga.) corralled an Itawamba defender in the end zone for a safety to make it 17-12 with 1:36 left in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs drove to the Itawamba 15 early in the fourth quarter, but failed to convert a fourth-and-5.
The Indians marched down the field and scored on a fourth down of their own, even after the shotgun snap to Ellington rolled on the ground. He picked it up and slung it to Dontavious Bruce, who scampered in from 29 yards out.
Itawamba jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter before Gulf Coast managed a first down. Quarterback Dan Ellington scored on a 1-yard run and running back Kadarius Forside added a 3-yard score before Zach Ellis' 31-yard field goal.
"We played a really good football team," Gulf Coast defensive coordinator Steve Davis said. "They played better than we did. We made way too many mistakes. There were times we had a chance to make some plays and didn't."
Gulf Coast's defense allowed nearly 400 yards total offense on 80 Itawamba plays.
"Great football teams respond and get better in situations like this," Huff said. "We've just got to get back to Perk, go to class and get ready for next week."
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