ZEPHYRHILLS — Reggie Roberts has spent months calling this his best Zephyrhills team in four seasons as head coach.
Friday night, he added another moniker for his Bulldogs — escape artists.
Zephyrhills lost four fumbles and sputtered on offense but somehow avoided beating itself in a 17-9 victory over Mitchell.
"Good teams find a way to win," Roberts said, "and we found a way to win tonight."
The victory was more gritty than pretty, but it secured the Bulldogs' first 3-0 start in seven seasons, and gave Mitchell (2-1) its first loss of the season.
Zephyrhills' problems began on its first play from scrimmage, when Mustangs junior Larry Couch pounced on a fumble. The Bulldogs gave up two first-quarter sacks and had a 44-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Kirby to Devin Brockington brought back by one of their eight first-half penalties.
But Zephyrhills' defense played well enough to overcome some of those mistakes.
Early in the second quarter, the Bulldogs chased Mitchell quarterback Alec Lambert, and the ball slipped out of his hands and toward senior linebacker Brandon Sanchez.
"I don't know what happened," Sanchez said, "but it came to me."
And Sanchez took the interception 8 yards into the end zone to give his team a 10-0 lead.
Brockington added an interception for Zephyrhills, and Mitchell's strong ground game lost 23 yards thanks to two fumbles and three sacks. The Mustangs entered Zephyrhills' red zone twice in the second half, but came away scoreless after a stuffed fourth-down rush and a missed field goal.
Mitchell's offense entered the game averaging 350 yards per game; Zephyrhills held it to 60.
"We're better than that," Mustangs coach Scott Schmitz said. "We just weren't tonight."
Mitchell's offense also took a hit when Lambert went down with a severe ankle sprain in the second half. Schmitz was unsure of when the junior might return.
The Mustangs' only points came on Zephyrhills miscues. Midway through the third quarter, Dan Mason scooped up a fumble and raced 49 yards for a touchdown to cut the Bulldogs' lead to 10-7.
Zephyrhills got an answer from an unlikely source. Division I prospect Jordan Roberts played sparingly because he was hobbled with a groin injury. But his coach put him in on fourth down with eight minutes left, and Kirby found him for a 30-yard touchdown strike.
"I told him just give me one play," Reggie Roberts said. "He made the most of it."
Another Bulldog error — a high snap led Zephyrhills' punter to kick the ball out of the end zone for a safety — made it a one-score game with 1:41 left. But the defense responded, and Justin Shaffer's fourth-down sack sealed his team's biggest victory of the young season.
"We would have lost this game," Roberts said. "These kids found a way to win."
Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.