Although his high-flying offense had averaged 38.8 points per game in 2019, Osceola Head Coach Doug Nichols has spent more than a little bit of time this season praising his defense.
And for good reason.
Jerry Wilson returned an interception 94 yards for a touchdown and his teammates converted two other turnovers into 10 more points as the Kowboys defeated Dr. Phillips, 20-7, in a Class 8A, Region 2 Semifinal game on Friday night.
It marked Osceola’s ninth straight win and the sixth time this season the Kowboys held an opponent to seven points or less.
The victory propels Osceola, 10-1, into the Regional Championship game on Friday night against Tampa’s George Steinbrenner High(11-1) — who upset No. 1 region seed Sarasota Riverview, 27-24. With the Kowboys being the highest remaining seed, Osceola will host the game on its own campus. Kickoff at Henry Ramsey Field will be 7:30 p.m.
In advancing to their fifth regional final in 10 years under Nichols, it was anything but easy for the Kowboys.
After going three and out on their first two series, Osceola would fall behind 7-0 as Brandon Fields capped off a 4-play, 67-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown run.
On the next drive, Osceola’s finally started to move the ball on offense, but would stall out at midfield after a holding penalty. A Spencer Richards punt pinned Dr. Philips deep in its own territory, and three plays later, Dylan Ruiz recovered a muffed handoff to set up Osceola on the Panther 15-yard line. Five plays later, Dewayne McGee ran it in from the three to tie the game, 7-7.
Later in the second quarter, Nichols’ offense would then take six minutes off the clock with a 12-play drive capped off by Richards’ 23-yard field goal as Osceola took a 10-7 lead into the locker room.
The Panthers appeared headed for a go-ahead touchdown to open the third quarter, moving the ball from their own 10 to the Osceola 8-yard line until Wilson stepped in front of an Isaiah Givens’ pass and raced untouched for the 94-yard score and a 17-7 lead.
“The way our defense was playing, I felt at that point that we had a pretty good chance of winning as long as we didn’t turn the ball over,” Nichols said. “When we stopped them on the next drive (a missed 36-yard field goal), you could sort of sense the wind going out of their sails a little bit.”
Late in the third quarter, Osceola got another defensive break as a combination of a dropped snap and a strong rush resulted in a muffed punt attempt that barely reached the line of scrimmage. Taking over on the Dr. Phillips’ 30, the ensuing series would gain only 13 yards but Richards booted a 27-yard field goal to make it a 20-7 game.
Dr. Phillips would then move the ball to the Osceola 38, where they faced a third and 12. But Fields would miss a wide open Jacques Jones in the end zone on a half back option pass and Givens would overthrow an open Ledger Hatch in the end zone on the next play, as Dr. Philips turned the ball over on downs.
“When you get to this level, all your opponents are going to be pretty good and the games are going to be decided on a play or two,” Nichols said. “We were able to make the big plays when we had to and they left a few opportunities on the table.”
After turning the ball over on downs, the Panthers would not see the ball again.
Going to a power running game, Osceola went on an 11-play, 61-yard drive with the contest ending with McGee being tackled on the Dr. Phillips 1-yard line. The Kowboys managed to pick up four first downs in running off the final 7:44 of the game clock.
“Sometimes I think we try to be two flashy,” Nichols said. “Our outside runs and counters were not working very well but when we started playing smash mouth football and running it up the gut we started moving the ball.”
The two teams were relatively even in total yards, with Osceola holding a 204-192 edge.
But while Osceola won the turnover battle and ultimately the game, the Kowboys were penalized 12 times for 125 yards.
“We came into the game wanting to control the clock, play good defense and limit their opportunities, so from that standpoint we played a really great game against a tough opponent,” Nichols said. “But we almost sunk ourselves with the penalties. A lot of them were just silly, the jumping offsides, the personal fouls—it’s something we need to clean up.”