The last time St. Thomas Aquinas drove up the road to Palm Beach Gardens for a playoff date with Dwyer, the Raiders were on the wrong end of a 6-3 slugfest.
“I got hurt first play of the game — I remember that,” said Raiders defensive end Anthony Moten, a 6-4, 292-pound University of Miami commitment, who is the only remaining defensive player at Aquinas to suit up for that 2011 regional final.
“What I remember is they had a really good running quarterback,” sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa said.
Bosa was in the stands cheering on his older brother Joseph Bosa (Ohio State) when then-quarterback Fauta Baton (Georgia) led a late touchdown drive for the Panthers, ending St. Thomas’ run as defending state champions.
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Friday night, Aquinas (10-2) will make the drive up again as defending state champions hoping for a different result in the Region 4-7A final. This Dwyer team (12-0) is ranked No. 1 in the state and has a much-more-potent passing offense.
Since losing 44-13 to nationally ranked Miami Central in the preseason, no opponent has come within 24 points of the Panthers, who opened the playoffs with blowout wins over Boyd Anderson 35-8 and Blanche Ely 49-7.
“To me, they’re the same as any other Dwyer team — real physical, athletic, very well-coached and they don’t make mistakes,” coach Rocco Cassulo said. “They have athletes like Miramar, a quarterback [Daniel Parr] who manages the game, receivers [Johnnie Dixon, Ezra Saffold and Clinton Stephens] who can catch and do a lot of things after they catch the ball. The running back [Alonzo Smith] is probably the best we’ve seen this year. We’ve got our work cut out.”
One could argue the Panthers (12-0) do, too.
Despite having only two defensive starters return from last year’s state championship team (Bosa and Moten), Aquinas has hardly skipped a beat under new defensive coordinator Bill Tierney. The Raiders have allowed just 85 points on defense and remain on pace to break the school record for points allowed (107 in 2010) in a state championship season.
“Our guys up front put teams in a bind,” Tierney said. “They kind of have to pick their poison as to where they’re either looking to run the ball or protect from a pass protection standpoint. We’ve been able to generate pressure in the passing game without having to send more than four guys. In the run game it’s hard to control them without double teaming each guy and you don’t have enough guys to double-team each of them.”
It’s more than just Bosa (team-leading 11.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss) and Moten (3 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss) wreaking havoc. Rush linebacker Chris Hart (45 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks), middle linebacker Hunter Goldberg (42 tackles, 8 tackles for loss) and a young secondary have also stepped up after losing South Carolina-bound cornerback Al Harris for the season to a hamstring injury.
Junior safety Tyson Cisrow (38 tackles, five interceptions) and cornerback Natrone Barnes (32.5 tackles, 6 interceptions) have also been pleasant surprises.
“I really think at this point in the year we’re better defensively than we were this time last year,” Casullo said. “It’s the maturity of the younger guys. Those guys who came up from the JV have been with each other since their freshman year in the same system and they have a lot of confidence.”
Moten, who has missed three games this season with an ankle injury including his team’s first two playoff games, said the key to Friday’s game will be how well the Raiders play up front on defense.
“This is the first pocket passer we’re going to face all year,” Moten said. “If we can get to him and stop the pass game, we should be able to hold them. I’m used to all these scrambling quarterbacks down here in Broward County, and now I know I got somebody who is not faster than me. I can try and take them apart.”
Last year, many thought the Raiders couldn’t beat Bradenton Manatee, the No. 1 team in the nation. But they did.
“I don’t feel like an underdog at all,” Bosa said. “I think that comes with the experience we got from last year. We can beat anybody.”