For the second consecutive week, Central’s football team found itself locked in a tight game with a tough out-of-state opponent.
And once again, the Rockets withstood the challenge.
Led by another stellar effort from senior running back Cedric Miller, Central escaped Georgia with a 21-20 victory over Stephenson (Ga.) in a game that was part of the Battle of the Borders Classic, which pits four of the top teams in Florida against some of Georgia’s best.
Miller ran for 159 yards on 22 carries to lead Central, which prevailed despite committing 106 yards in penalties.
Miller was named the MVP of the game, and his performance followed another 100-plus yard effort last week against Hoover (Alabama).
Central (2-0), ranked No. 5 nationally by USA Today, followed its win over then-No. 7 Hoover with another tough defensive effort that helped it extend its winning streak to 14 games.
“Anytime you can play on the road against a tough team like Stephenson and get a win of this magnitude, it’s huge,” Central coach Roland Smith said. “They did an excellent job and we were lucky to come out with the victory.”
The Rockets offense, which returned only one starter from last season, struggled with consistency in the first half for the second consecutive game.
A number of penalties both during and after plays put the Rockets in long-yardage situations.
Central did not gain a first down until five minutes remained in the second quarter.
But the Rockets’ defense, which is replete with major prospects, stood tough until its offensive counterparts found rhythm.
Stephenson took an early lead on a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Dewann Ford. And that came after a personal-foul penalty gave the Jaguars a new set of downs following a defensive stand inside the 5-yard line.
Central’s defense made the first game-changing play late in the half when Fermin Silva picked up a fumble and returned it to the Stephenson 3-yard line. Three plays later, Malik Atkins ran for a 7-yard touchdown to give the Rockets a 7-6 lead.
“We have to continue to play great defense until our offense picks it up because they’re the more experienced group right now,” Smith said.
Central did not trail again as it added another score on a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Jerrod Thomas.
Stephenson cut the deficit to 14-12 late in the third quarter on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Ford to Dexter Neal.
But Miller keyed another productive Central drive that was capped with another 1-yard touchdown plunge by Atkins and made it a two-score game.
The Jaguars cut Central’s lead to 21-20 with 45 seconds left when Ivonte Patterson scored on a 1-yard touchdown run followed by a two-point conversion when Neal made a falling catch in the end zone.
But Central recovered the ensuing onside kick to seal the win.
“We told those guys we needed a big second half and we came out and got the big drive we needed,” Smith said.
Central next faces Booker T. Washington, the last team to beat the Rockets. Booker T. beat Central in the second week of the 2013 season when the teams were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 nationally. The Tornadoes would go on to claim last year’s consensus national championship.
Booker T. entered the weekend on a Florida-best 27-game winning streak.www.miamiherald.com/hssports