Thanks in part to quarterback Mike White’s 282 yards, University’s 7-year-old football program won its first state title.
Roger Harriott sat proud Saturday afternoon hoisted on the shoulders of a couple of his assistant coaches.
His players held up their index fingers, their gold medals, and the state championship trophy.
Their fans stood, saluted them and celebrated in the stands.
And the T-shirts they wore had a phrase that described the scene best:
Seven years after starting its football program, University School secured its first state championship after beating Madison County 24-17 in the Class 3A state final at the Citrus Bowl.
“We talked about being a second-half team,” Harriott said. “Once you get kids to believe they can accomplish anything and these kids proved that today.”
For a time early Saturday afternoon, however, University appeared to be headed to an ending similar to its last game in the Citrus Bowl two years ago.
That season, an upstart Suns team lost a triple-overtime heartbreaker to Ocala Trinity Catholic 56-55. Many of the players from that 2010 team that Harriott and his coaches consoled on that disappointing afternoon attended Saturday’s game hoping for a different outcome.
They got it as University rallied from a 17-0 deficit — its largest of the season — to finish with a perfect 12-0 record despite it mustering its lowest scoring output this year.
“We just said that there [were] 24 minutes left in the season,” University senior quarterback Mike White said of their halftime talk. “It’s up to us and what we’re going to do with it. We weren’t going to come in and lie down and not fight. We ended up doing it.”
White, who was offered and committed to the University of South Florida shortly after the game, was one of the architects of the rally.
With the Suns’ potent offense that came in averaging 42.7 points shut out until the final two minutes of the first half, White found rhythm with his deep pool of receivers, completing 21 of 31 passes for 282 yards and two touchdowns to lead University back.
University’s defense, which allowed 7.6 points per game and had five shutouts this season, protected the lead in the closing moments of the game.
After Madison County got as close as University’s 20-yard line on the potential game-tying drive, linebacker Skai Moore sacked quarterback D.J. McKnight with 1:14 left. McKnight threw an incomplete pass forcing a fourth down and 17.
McKnight completed a pass over the middle to Neal Brown, but Wesley Smith delivered a vicious hit that stopped Brown a yard short of the first down.
Smith had a torn ACL and did not play in the 2010 state final that ended with the Suns being stopped a yard short of victory on a two-point conversion.
“We knew the down and distance and what we had to do,” Smith said. “I just saw the ball in his hands and just hit him from the side so he wouldn’t get the first down. I gave everything I had. I love these boys, and we weren’t going to let each other down.”
Madison County’s defense limited University to minus-2 rushing yards in the first half, and sophomore star Jordan Scarlett to 7 yards rushing on five carries.
Ilan Krus booted a 25-yard field goal with 2:02 left in the second quarter that gave University its first points.
After forcing Madison County (12-2) to punt, White directed another drive that ended with a 15-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Taylor that cut the Cowboys lead to 17-10 at halftime.
During that final drive of the half, University star wide receiver Jordan Cunningham suffered a left knee sprain that kept him out of the game until early in the fourth quarter.
“They put their linebackers about 1 or 2 yards off the ball and stunted a lot, and at first we didn’t know what to do,” senior offensive lineman Jordan Budwig said. “We started running the opposite way of where we lined up our three wide receivers and that’s when you saw Jordan start to get the running game going.”
After the adjustment in the second half, Scarlett found some openings and eventually the end zone on a 14-yard touchdown run that cut the deficit to 17-16. University was unable to tie, however, after Krus missed the extra point.
Taylor fumbled on the Suns’ ensuing drive, squandering another chance to take the lead. But he and Cunningham would each have moments of redemption in the fourth quarter. Taylor was also dropped what appeared to be a pass from White in the first half but was called a lateral and therefore a fumble that Madison County recovered. Moments later, the Cowboys took their 17-0 lead when McKnight found Shedrick Williams open for a 40-yard touchdown.
Cunningham, who limped off the field at halftime with his knee wrapped, made a leaping catch over a defender for a key 28-yard gain to Madison County’s 29-yard line. Five plays later, the Suns had the lead for good when White connected with Emanuel Soto on an 11-yard touchdown strike.
And Taylor would atone for his earlier miscues by catching a two-point conversion pass.
“Our kids showed a ton of resolve and extraordinary heart,” Harriott said. “The title is great and it means a lot to us, but it was more exciting to watch these kids overcome adversity and learn a lesson on how to become better citizens in life.”