So Miami Central can still run the football.
Central, ranked nationally No. 8 by USA Today, ran for 317 yards in the first game of the post-Dalvin Cook/Joseph Yearby Era to snap No. 7 Hoover’s 30-game winning streak with a 24-21 victory in a nationally-televised season-opener at Buccaneer Stadium in Alabama.
With several key players suffering second-half cramps in a sweltering 100-plus degree heat, the Rockets (1-0) ran the same basic play out of the Wildcat formation, enhancing an already potent rushing attack that helped them hand the host Bucs (0-1) their first loss since falling to Prattville (Alabama) in a state final in 2011.
Senior kicker Beymar Piraquve’s 31-yard field goal with 45 seconds left put the Rockets ahead for good, lifting them to the victory and extending Central’s own winning streak to 13 games.
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“I couldn’t be more proud of the way this team handled adversity both on and off the field,” Central coach Roland Smith said. “We teach our kids to play until the final whistle and they did.”
Smith said his team was not fazed by any distractions that come with traveling out-of-state nor by the incident that happened this past week when an anonymous Hoover fan sent a racially-disparaging letter to Smith.
“People kept sending us messages and contacting us about it so we collected all the players’ phones before the game,” Smith said. “The kids stayed focused on the game.”
Central’s defense, which had six sacks — led by two from junior Keir Thomas — sealed the game, played in conditions that felt like 100-plus degree heat, on the final play when Jamel Cook notched the Rockets’ third interception of the contest.
The departure of Cook (Florida State) and Yearby (Miami), two of the top running backs in Miami-Dade County, raised questions about Central’s offense entering the season.
The Rockets quelled any of those concerns behind a running game that thrived behind the monstrous offensive line of seniors Jason Jean (6-4, 290 pounds), Tavaris Bruton (6-1, 300), Robzel Sylvester (6-3, 320), and sophomores Navaughn Donaldson (6-5, 310) and Mershawn Miller (6-1, 305).
Senior running back Cedric Miller finished with 17 carries for 133 yards and a touchdown, but played only one series in the third quarter after injuring his left elbow.
Fittingly, Cook’s nephew, senior Anthony Jones (5-10, 180) propelled the offense mostly out of the Wildcat formation and finished with 16 carries for 136 yards.
Jones had the go-ahead touchdown from nine yards out early in the fourth quarter to put Central ahead 14-7.
But Jones was most clutch on Central’s final drive breaking a 46-yard run to the Hoover 27-yard line setting up Piraquve’s field goal four plays later.
The scoring drive answered back-to-back touchdown drives by Hoover that erased Central’s 21-7 lead with 10 minutes left in the fourth. Central was penalized 15 times for 135 yards, also keeping it from completing potential scoring drives. A personal-foul penalty for a late hit on a third-down incomplete pass kept Hoover’s game-tying drive going. Hoover senior Bradrick Shaw scored from 19 yards out with 3:15 left to tie it.
Although its running game was stellar and its defense spectacular in allowing only 46 first-half yards, Central was nowhere near as sharp on special teams during a frustrating first half.
Hoover blocked two Central punts, one of which led to the game’s first score when quarterback Jack Hutcheson found senior Kris Parker for a 35-yard touchdown.
Central moved star senior wide receiver Da’Vante Phillips to long snapper because of the issues.
Phillips contributed at his actual position with two clutch catches that led to Central’s first touchdown — a 12-yard run by Miller. Phillips, who also missed the majority of the fourth quarter with cramps, finished with six catches for 95 yards.
“The guys were struggling with cramps, but that’s all it was,” Smith said. “We have to learn to finish better especially on defense. We’ll learn from our mistakes [Saturday] and I know we’ll get better.”