Football fans waited years to see two of South Florida’s most storied football programs play each other.
On Saturday night at Sun Life Stadium, only Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas put on a performance worthy of its rich history.
The Raiders scored 28 first-half points and dominated Miami Northwestern on their way to a 38-3 victory over the Bulls in the first-ever meeting between the two schools.
“I think all three phases of the game we played tremendous,” Aquinas coach Rocco Casullo said. “We controlled the line of scrimmage and the defense played fast and executed well. I like this group a lot. They’ve carried over the momentum of last season and they want to make this a special year.”
Aquinas and Northwestern have combined for 12 state championships and three national titles.
The Raiders (1-0), ranked as high as No. 5 nationally, are coming off their seventh state championship season.
The Bulls (0-1) have won five state crowns, including four Florida High School Athletic Association titles.
But by halftime, the disparity between the two teams was clear in a matchup that likely would have been more competitive five years earlier when the Bulls were coming off their last state championship and a national championship (2007).
The Raiders balanced offensive performance (165 yards rushing and 166 passing) took control in the first quarter after Aquinas running backs Mardre London and Deltron Sands each scored touchdowns.
London finished with 99 yards on 15 carries and scored two touchdowns.
“Our coaches got us focused all week to come out early and play St. Thomas football,” London said. “We didn’t want to get caught up in the Dade vs. Broward stuff. We just worried about us.”
Northwestern had one chance to at least make it a closer game late in the first half after Sharmarke Spence intercepted Aquinas quarterback Wade Freebeck’s pass off a deflection by Keon Richardson and returned it to the Raiders’ 30-yard line. Northwestern nearly scored when Leon Brown ran to the 1-yard line, converting a fourth-and-5 situation.
But a quarterback sneak came up short and a false start penalty backed them up five yards. After six total plays inside the Aquinas 10, Northwestern came away with no points when Tyson Cisrow intercepted Northwestern quarterback Trevis McKinney on fourth down.
“I thought not getting in when we got to the 1-yard line was huge,” Northwestern coach Stephen Field said. “That would have given us something to build on.”
Aquinas played the second half with mostly reserves.
Trailing 31-0, Northwestern got its only points in the first minute of the fourth quarter when Ruben Piraquvie connected on a 30-yard field goal.
Aquinas answered 16 seconds later when backup quarterback Jake Rizzo hit Devante Peete in stride for a 60-yard touchdown pass.
“We had a great week of practice and we felt like we were ready to go, but obviously that didn’t happen,” Field said. “I’m the head coach and everything starts and stops with me and I take full responsibility for this.”
Northwestern’s defense tried to keep the Bulls in it early as linebacker Mike Smith led a unit that put pressure on Freebeck.
But the Bulls’ offensive woes continued and couldn’t muster any consistency.
Things got worse for Northwestern late in the second quarter when McKinney was injured after being pulled down hard by the face mask by Aquinas defensive end Anthony Moten.
McKinney was carted off the field on a stretcher, but had full movement of his arms, shaking hands with a couple of teammates as he was taken to the locker room.
“He’ll be fine,” Field said. “I think he just suffered a sprained neck.”
Without McKinney, backup quarterback/wide receiver Jabari Dowling finished the game. On his first play, Dowling was sacked and the ball was jarred loose as his arm was about to move forward to pass. The referees did not blow the whistle, ruling it a fumble and allowing Aquinas linebacker Jake Stewart to pick it up and rumble 54 yards for a touchdown – extending the Raiders’ lead to 28-0.
“We feel like we have the best defense in the nation and we’ve been working hard in practice,” London said. “We won a state championship last season and we want to follow that up this season.”
ST. THOMAS AQUINAS 38,
STA-London 7 run (Cicero kick)
STA-Sands 4 run (Cicero kick)
STA-London 2 run (Cicero kick)
STA-Stewart 54 fumble return (Cicero kick)
STA-FG Courtney 32
NW-FG Piraquvie 30
STA-Peete 60 pass from Rizzo (McCourt kick)
Rushing (att-yds) -- NW: McKinney 5-(-23), McGee 1-0, Lamb 2-5, Stafford 3-11, Dowling 3-14, Robinson 7-24, Brown 12-53. STA: Rizzo 2-(-2), Freebeck 3-4, Gaines 7-16, Sands 8-48, London 15-99.
Passing (comp-att-int, yds)-- NW: Dowling 2-5-1, 24, McKinney 3-9-1, 27. STA: Rizzo 1-4-0, 60, Freebeck 7-12-1, 106.
Receiving (rec-yds-TD) -- NW: Mims 1-15, Gissendanner 2-16, Times 2-20. STA: Palheghyi 1-3, Holmes 1-20, Sands 2-25, Bender 2-50, Peete 2-68.