The Rebels held their breath, rationalizing that no way, no how could Gibbs win this game.
Even if Shaun King took his team 2 yards into the end zone in the game's last 17 seconds, thanks to an unbelievable blocked punt, the Dixie Hollins defense would simply not allow Gibbs to score again and win.
Before the Rebels could exhale, the Gladiators made all the worrying meaningless. On the first down, King collided with his running back, the ball bounced to the ground, and the Rebels pounced on it, much as they have done with other teams in 5A-District 8.
Dixie Hollins (6-1, 3-0) preserved a 26-18 victory and virtually sealed a third straight district title. Gibbs fell to 5-3, 2-2, losing yet another heartbreaker.
"We knew our defense would stop them anyway. We were ready to be district champs," said Jason Macon, Dixie Hollins' overshadowed quarterback who sported a Burger King paper crown after the game.
But Macon, who threw for just 64 yards and one costly interception, didn't show up Gibbs' King on paper. Dixie Hollins running backs Ricardo Williams and Joe Pierce did. Williams scored three touchdowns and ran for 78 yards, while Pierce dashed in on a 30-yard touchdown and finished with 70 yards.
In the end, though, King and his teammates stopped themselves. The senior quarterback was 15-of-27 for 215 yards and passed for three touchdowns, and was in position for yet another comeback.
With 2:55 remaining in the game, Gibbs had to give up the ball on downs on Dixie's 18-yard line. Dixie Hollins stalled and finally had to punt with 26 seconds left. The Gladiators rushed Macon, the punter, and blocked the kick, recovering on the Rebels' 2-yard line. But they couldn't unwrap the gift.
"It was supposed to be a play-action, but my running back, Kevin Johnson, we ran into each other," King said. "We came up short tonight. But there's still a slim hope we can make the playoffs."
Dixie Hollins, meanwhile, just needs to beat Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg in order to capture the district title _ and probably just one of them depending on other outcomes in the confusing playoff picture.
The Rebels looked strong from the beginning, scoring 12 quick points on consecutive possessions to open the game. Pierce returned a poor punt 32 yards that set up two 4-yard runs by Williams. Pierce then ran 30 yards for the next touchdown and the Rebels seemed ready to score again when Gibbs fumbled.
But Alvin Jones revived the Gladiators by intercepting a 3-yard pass in the end zone and taking it 53 yards. After three incompletes, King hit Jones all alone on the sideline for a pretty 47-yard touchdown that made the score 12-6.