ORLANDO – If there is any justice in this world, Seminole’s Andre Debose will win an ESPY and his teannates will, too.
In a game which Miami Northwestern looked poised to dominate after taking a commanding 21-0 lead in the first quarter, Debose’s catch over Tevin McCaskill while falling into the end zone for a 40-yard touchdown with 33 seconds to play capped off an amazing comeback and a 28-21 victory that gave Seminole its first state football championship.
Seminole (13-2) was led by its dynamic duo of Ray Ray Armstrong and Debose once again. Armstrong finished the night 5-of-6 passing for 98 yards and the winning touchdown pass to Debose while also rushing 21 times for 116 yards and a touchdown. Time and time again his runs were punctuated with broken tackles and bruising hits by the 6-4, 215-pound senior, who simply willed his team to win for the second time in two weeks.
Debose finished the game with 18 carries for 65 yards and 2 touchdowns, while catching two passes for 51 yards. But no play was bigger than his 40-yard catch with 33 seconds left, an unbelievable grab over the Northwestern defensive back who had perfect coverage on the play.
Debose almost seemed stunned for a second that the catch was made, remarking after game, “I thought the ball touched the ground, so I was (thinking) like ‘incomplete pass.’ When I saw the referee throw his hands up, my world went from zero to hero instantly.”
The touchdown catch capped off a 12-play, 80-yard drive which took 5:09 off the clock. The Seminoles dominated the second half, with touchdown drives of 6:40 and 4:57 in the third quarter that ended with TD runs of 5 and 1 yards by Debose. For the second half as a whole, the Seminoles held the ball for 18:55 as opposed to just 5:05 for Miami Northwestern (12-2), which was seeking its third straight Class 6A title.
At one point, a Seminole victory seemed nearly impossible. Northwestern dominated the first quarter to such an extent that the night’s marquee game seemed headed for a result similar to St. Thomas Aquinas’s 56-7 victory over Lakeland in the Class 5A title game Friday night.
Northwestern racked up 211 yards in the first quarter as opposed to just 46 for Seminole. Fireworks opened the game as Teddy Bridgewater threw a 72-yard touchdown pass to Michaelee Harris on the first play from scrimmage, a beautiful catch-and-run which got a raucous Northwestern crowd fired up and into the game.
Daquan Hargrett and Bridgewater both made several nice runs in the first quarter as well, racking up 67 yards on just 9 carries. Bridgewater, in particular, looked impressive. After starting the year at wide receiver, he came into his own over the course of the season and finished with a good performance against a tough Seminole defense, completing 9 of 18 passes for 203 yards and 2 touchdowns, along with 25 yards on the ground on just 4 carries.
It was the play of the Seminole defense that really allowed the ‘Noles to hang around long enough so the offense could get going. The ‘Noles surrendered just 77 yards in the final three quarters, spurred on by the play of Armstrong, Tyrone Bouie (three tackles and a sack), Charles Thacker, Dyron Dye (one sack) and Serderius Bryant.
After catching momentum from Armstrong’s sensational 26-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, the ‘Noles used a great team effort to shut down Northwestern the rest of the evening. Northwestern finished with 288 total yards to Seminole’s 340.
“We just put pressure on them with (our) D-Line,” Armstrong said. “The D-Line played a hell of a game and the defensive backs stepped up in the second half. We played a poor first half, so we didn’t change too much. We just came out and played even better. We played with a lot of heart.”
After the game Seminole coach Mike Cullison couldn’t believe his team’s incredible comeback.
“I think when it was 21-14 that we had a chance,” he said. “We come down and score on the first drive and we got a break (with the fumble on the kickoff). We needed a break. We didn’t get any breaks in the first half. We’re a second-half team. Maybe we should just start (playing our games) in the second half.”
But after the game it was Debose who summed what the night meant to his community.
“Sanford, not Orlando, Florida is finally put on the map,” Debose said. “We’re state champions, man!”
And improbable ones at that.
FHSAA FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS
The pairings for this weekend’s championship games at Orlando’s Citrus Bowl in the 2008 Florida High School Athletic Association state football playoffs:
Friday, Dec. 19
Class 3A championship
Cocoa 7, Godby (Tallahassee) 6, OT
Class 5A championship
St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale) 56, Lakeland 7
Saturday, Dec. 20
Class 4A championship
Plant (Tampa) 34, Lincoln (Tallahassee) 14
Class 6A championship
Seminole (Sanford) 28, Northwestern (Miami) 21