Its vaunted defense held the line once again Saturday night.
But with its offense stifled for more than three quarters, the Spartans desperately needed a spark.
They got it when quarterback Michael Cox heaved a ball down the sideline and wide receiver Mark Pope caught it and raced 72 yards to the end zone.
That was all Southridge needed to wrap up a dramatic 14-10 comeback victory over Orlando Dr. Phillips in the Class 8A state final at Camping World Stadium.
“We had a goal all year that if we can hold people to less than three touchdowns we can win any game,” said Southridge coach Billy Rolle, who became the first coach in state history to win a state championship at three schools. “[Pope] was asking for the ball and we knew we had to throw in that second half.”
The Spartans (12-2) won their first state championship since 1993 and their third in school history.
For the second consecutive playoff game, Southridge came back in the fourth quarter after its offense struggled to move the ball the previous three. In last week’s state semifinal against Deerfield Beach, the Spartans overcame six turnovers with 20 points in the fourth quarter.
Southridge, which had 55 total yards in the first half, amassed 230 in the second half Saturday, including 143 in the fourth quarter after its offense unexpectedly came alive following a fumble recovery by safety Billy Gibson with 11:54 left.
“My mindset throughout the game was let the game come to you, you can’t go to the game,” Gibson said. “I always work to try and be around the ball, just be there because you never know what might happen on defense.”
It took the Spartans 14 plays to go 67 yards to capitalize but they did when on fourth and goal, Jordan Dillard made spectacular catch in the corner of the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown.
Cox rolled out and heaved it into the end zone where the ball bounced up in the air off a defender allowing Dillard to race in and make the catch.
Dr. Phillips blocked the ensuing extra point, but Southridge cut its lead to 10-6 with 8:26 left.
After forcing the Panthers to punt on their ensuing drive, the Spartans regained possession deep in its own territory after a clipping call backed them up to their own 11-yard line.
Southridge converted a third-and-8 on a pass interference call with Cox throwing to Pope. On the next play, Cox hit Pope for the touchdown pass.
The touchdown was Pope’s 10th of the season.
“Before the game, I told my coach [Southridge offensive coordinator David Cooney] to give me a chance,” Pope said. “I told him I can beat them deep. I was patient all night and they finally gave me a chance.”
Southridge’s offense suffered a setback early in the game when leading rusher Bentavious Thompson exited the game after fracturing his clavicle. Thompson did not return.
The Spartans’ defense, which shut out eight of its foes during the season including seven in a row at one point, yielded 10 points for only the second time in its past 10 games.
Dr. Phillips broke a scoreless duel early in the second quarter when kicker Sterling Stockwell connected on a 44-yard field goal.
The Panthers increased their lead to 10-0 with 48 seconds left in the first half by putting together a methodical 14-play, 55-yard drive that ended with a 5-yard touchdown run by Emare Hogan.
It was only the second offensive touchdown allowed in the playoffs by the Southridge defense.
“In the end, it was all about our defense tonight because they busted it to keep us in the game,” Cox said. “But it felt great for us as an offense to come up big in the end and help them out.”