Forget South Florida. Friday night’s monster showdown between Central and St. Thomas Aquinas may have featured two of the top teams in the entire country.
And when it was over, none of the standing-room-only crowd at Brian Piccolo Field who plunked down their $10 left disappointed.
The game, streamed live on Facebook as part of the Great American Rivalry Series, lived up to every bit of its billing and in the end, the Rockets, ranked No. 11 in the nation by Max Preps found enough firepower to overcome a 21-14 third quarter deficit and defeat No. 7 nationally-ranked St. Thomas Aquinas 43-27.
“We just find ways,” said Central quarterback Maurice Underwood. “We never lost our poise and that’s how we do it around here.”
After taking a 14-7 lead to the locker room at the break, Central lost all the momentum as St. Thomas came out in a no-huddle offense and scored back-to-back touchdowns to go on top and it looked like the Rockets were in big trouble.
But to know Central is to know it is a team that has historically kept its cool in tight situations and proved it once again.
Underwood, who finished his night 12-of-25 for 284 yards and did just as much damage on the ground scoring four touchdowns rushing while scrambling for some huge first downs in third-down situations, calmly drove his team downfield before settling for a 29-yard Jayden John field goal.
After St. Thomas once again came out with another no-huddle drive that resulted in a missed field goal, Central took the lead for good when Underwood dropped back and found Anthony Colonel for a 62-yard touchdown and 23-21 lead with 10:26 left.
Now with the momentum back, the Central defense adjusted to the fast-pace Raiders offense and got a three-and-out, which was followed by another quick drive and 5-yard Underwood quarterback keeper to make it 30-21 with 7:06 left. One more three and out and one long 61-yard run by Lexington Joseph set up another short touchdown to make it 37-21 and the Rockets sideline and their fans were whooping it up.
“I think the way our coaches prepare these kids during the week and the tough schedule we play is what prepares our kids for games like this,” said Central head coach Roland Smith, whose team had previous big bouts with Cardinal Gibbons, Booker T. Washington and No. 2 nationally ranked St. Johns from Washington D.C. leading up to this game. “The kids just always seem to know how to keep their poise in tight situations and you saw that out there again tonight.”
“Them going to a quick no-huddle definitely threw us off at the start of the second half for sure,” said Central defensive back Henry Gray. “But it was just a matter of us adjusting which took a couple of drive because we always go up against that kind of offense when we practice against our offense every week.”
The Rockets (4-1) jumped out in front 6-0 near the end of the first quarter when Underwood completed a 76-yard, 8-play drive with a 1-yard quarterback keeper around the left side. The extra point was blocked.
Aquinas (4-1) answered right back with a long drive of its own, going 64 yards in nine plays, the payoff shot a 7-yard Curt Casteel touchdown pass to Marcus Rosemy on third-and-goal to go up 7-6 with 10:24 left in the half.
Two possessions later, Central retook the lead when Underwood once again fooled St. Thomas defenders and scored on a keeper around the right side from four yards out. Lexington Joseph then lined up in the wildcat formation and ran in the two point conversion.
The score was set up when Underwood found a wide open Anthony Fredrick down the right sideline for a 39 yard gain to the Raiders 8.
Aquinas could have cut into the lead just before halftime, but a 35-yard William McConnell field goal attempt went wide left as time expired.
“We just know how to do this stuff,” said Underwood who seemed to treat things like just another night at the office. “Something like this tonight was big but we’re used to it. We just know how to get things done when they need to get done. A lot of big games still ahead for us so we’ll just go back to work next week.”