Miami Central used a punishing rushing game behind senior running back Devonta Freeman's 308 yards to win its first state football championship, with a 42-27 victory over the Orlando Dr. Phillips Panthers.
But, it wasn't only on the offensive side of the ball where the Rockets dominated as Central (14-1) held Dr. Phillips' powerful offense to just 35 yards rushing and 203 yards passing.
"I thought my kids fought a little harder tonight," Central coach Telly Lockette said. "I'm so happy and elated for these kids right now."
Freeman's total was just 20 yards under the state finals record set in 1996 by Travis Henry of Frostproof.
"I always knew this kid was going to be special," Lockette said of Freeman. "He has the heart of a champion."
"Our offensive line made it possible for me," Freeman said of his huge rushing night.
It was the first state championship for the Rockets, as both teams were in the state title game for the first time.
Central quarterback Rakeem Cato had a solid game, passing for 196 yards and three scores on 17-of-25. He had one interception. He spread his passes around, but D'andre Randle led the Rockets in receiving with 68 yards and one touchdown on five catches.
Central had to overcome an early 17-0 lead by the Panthers, as Dr. Phillips (14-1) scored an early offensive touchdown and had a defensive score on a pass interception. A field goal followed, but the Rockets didn't waver.
"I had to calm them down," Lockette said. "We've been there (down big) before."
In the second half, the drama of the big-class state championship was intensified as a heavy fog began to roll in during the third period and by the late third, it was very thick.
Central made its way through the fog for a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to shut the door and keep the Panthers at bay.
Leading 28-27, the Rockets drove 80 yards to build the lead to eight points when Freeman bulled in from the 2-yard line with 6:04 left in the fourth period. The extra point by Emilio Nadelman gave the Rockets a 35-27 lead.
Dr. Phillips moved the ball to the Central 14-yard line, but, on fourth-and-3, Durrell Eskridge picked off Nick Patti's pass to end the Panthers' final threat with 3:01 left in the fourth.
Then, on first down, Freeman rambled 80 yards to the Dr. Phillips 9-yard line and then scored three plays later to slam the door shut when he scored on a four-yard run with 2:36 remaining the fourth period.
Central took its first lead of the game when Cato hit Thomas Shuler with a pass in the flat and he did the rest, bulling his way into the end zone with 4:06 left in the third period. Nadelman added the extra point to give the Rockets a 28-24 lead.
The Panthers responded with a field goal drive when Shawn Moffitt kicked a 26-yarder with 31 seconds remaining in the third period.
Although they received more penalty yardage than they gained, the Panthers struck first in the championship game on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Patti to wide receiver Chris Gallon, who had 118 yards and two touchdowns on four catches. Patti's perfect strike was hauled in by Gallon who never broke stride. Moffitt added the extra point to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead with 9:31 left in the first quarter.
Dr. Phillips jumped up by two scores when defensive back Ryan Luckett stepped in front of a Cato pass and scampered untouched for a 61-yard interception return for a touchdown. Moffit's extra point gave the Panthers a 14-0 lead with 7:30 remaining in the first period.
The Rockets moved the ball on their next possession, but the Dr. Phillips defense forced a punt and the Panthers drove to the Central 10 before stalling and after a penalty, Moffitt nailed a 32-yard field goal to put Dr. Phillips ahead 17-0 with 11 seconds gone in the second period.
It didn't take long for the Rockets to respond with their first score of the game when Shuler return a Moffitt kickoff to the Dr. Phillips 45-yard line. Cato then hit D'andre Randle on a 31-yard pass over the middle for the touchdown. Nadelman added the extra point to pull the Rockets to within 17-7 with 10:36 left in the second.
The Rockets got their own pick six just a couple minutes later, when Central's Charles Gaines Jr. stepped in front of a Patti pass and returned it 18 yards for the score. Nadelman's extra point trimmed Dr. Phillips' lead to 17-14 with 7:59 left in the second period.
Dr. Phillips grabbed back some of the momentum when Patti hit Gallon for a 50-yard touchdown pass. The senior wide receiver made a nice catch over the defender and took into the end zone. Moffitt's extra point put the Panthers up 24-14 with 2:32 left in the second period.
The Rockets were unfazed, however, as they drove 80 yards for their third touchdown of the game when Cato hit Freeman on a wheel route for an 18-yard touchdown pass with just 18 seconds left in the first half. Nadelman's extra point cut the Dr. Phillips lead to 24-21.
Dee Hart, the Florida Dairy Farmers' Class 6A player of the year, was pretty much a non-factor, as the Central defense kept him bottled up. He gained just 39 yards rushing on 20 carries, by far his lowest output of the season. As a team, the Panthers rushed for just 35 net yards. Hart scored an incredible 50 touchdowns through the first 14 games this season.
The teams traded punts throughout the first part of the third period. In fact, Dr. Phillips had punted only 10 times through the first 14 games and was forced to punt three times through the first 2-1/2 quarters.
Played at Orlando's Florida Citrus Bowl, the game drew 10,078, the biggest crowd of the four-game weekend.