NEW PORT RICHEY — Though generations and football allegiances distinguish them from each other, Rick Messer and Jacob Jackson will share a commonality at W.F. Edwards Stadium in Dade City tonight.
In a sense, both are caretakers of a potent mechanism that everyone will be watching. Messer, Pasco High Class of 1973, operates the south end zone cannon that fires after every Pirates touchdown. Jackson, Gulf High Class of 2011, will operate a Bucs offense also known for detonating frequently.
Their objectives tonight are simple: Keep their units in check and avoid any backfires or implosions. For Messer, a bona fide Florida Cracker, the task is routine. He has been on his alma mater's "Boom Squad" for roughly a decade.
Jackson, a native of Toledo, Ohio, has been Gulf's quarterback for all of one varsity game.
"I'm not really that nervous right now," said Jackson, holding a half-eaten chocolate doughnut, before his team's morning practice Wednesday. "But I probably will be before the game."
A season-ending injury to junior Madison Burr (sprained left knee, torn thigh tendon) thrust Jackson (5 feet 11, 170 pounds) into a pivotal role in one of the biggest playoff games Pasco County has seen. The junior varsity starter entering the season, Jackson has practiced with the starting offense since Monday but began mentally bracing for his promotion as early as Saturday.
That's when Burr (1,634 total yards, 20 touchdowns) called his younger brother, Phoenix, to tell him something was wrong with his knee and Jackson likely would have to play at Pasco.
At the time, Phoenix was at Jackson's house. Unbeknownst to Burr, Jackson was listening via speakerphone.
Tonight, the Pirates will dial him up directly. In the first playoff game involving two North Suncoast teams, the Pirates will shift their defensive front, sneak their safeties into the box and blitz from enough angles to make a trigonometry lesson — all to confuse the Bucs rookie.
Gulf's coaches know this. All they're asking from Jackson is to remain poised, know the offensive signals and complete an intermediate pass every now and again to keep Pasco's defense honest. They hope Jackson's complementary players — namely, county rushing leader Adrian "Bubba" Golden — will handle the rest.
"Jacob really doesn't have to win the game for us," Gulf coach Jay Fulmer said.
"He just needs to be relaxed and don't do things that get us beat."
He did exactly that in his only other varsity start.
Less than 48 hours before the Bucs' Oct. 3 game at Ridgewood, Jackson was informed he'd be promoted from JV to replace Burr, sidelined when a tool box landed on his foot. Other than attempting four passes (completing two), he spent most of the night handing off to Golden, who ran for a county-record 432 yards in a 52-28 rout.
"If you give him time to throw, he will hit his target," said Fulmer, noting Jackson has played quarterback at various levels.
"Our guys respect him and think he's a pretty good player. That's the thing about the Ridgewood game. We didn't miss a beat. I think they knew we were going to have to rely pretty heavily on the running game, but that's not really a bad thing for us."
But can the formula that beat the Rams succeed tonight at W.F. Edwards Stadium, where the stakes — and speed of the opponent — will be significantly greater?
Succinctly, can the Bucs win tonight with Jackson?
"Yeah, we can win with him," tight end Leon Orr said. "It comes down to him just having the right mentality. If he ain't got it before (tonight), I'll put it in him."