Posted: 5:27 pm Saturday, September 17th, 2011
By Jeff Greer
PALM BEACH GARDENS — At halftime of Friday night’s game at Palm Beach Gardens, Palm Beach Central coach Rod Harris grinned in my direction and said, “We must be doing something right if you’re here.”
Both teams are doing something right in the early going of the 2011 campaign.
Friday night featured both teams doing what they do best: Gardens (2-1) ran for 328 yards and four touchdowns. Central’s playmakers scored on special teams, two deep passes and two runs. It was a high-scoring, 38-32 win for Central (2-1), and the game cemented both teams’ statuses as serious playoff contenders in their wide-open districts.We were ripped preseason for saying Central belonged in that kind of conversation. Shredded. And at 2-1, there’s certainly not certainty that the Broncos will stick around in that position, but the way their offense looked last night, it’s hard to imagine them fading. Quarterback Brock Bukowski operates well on the designed rollouts and delivers a good ball. Angelo Jean-Louis is virtually uncoverable, and Ray Wilson and Tommy McDonald have given the Broncos two great rushing options.
Same goes for Gardens. The Gators can move the ball at will. They use their strong offensive line to punish defenders up front and create space for their fantastic running-back tandem of Roshard Burney and Alex Clark. Last night, Burney was the man, 194 yards and a touchdown off 19 carries. Clark had 118 yards and two scores. The last time I saw Gardens — a 28-6 win over West Boca Raton — it was Clark who did the most damage, scoring three times off 102 rushing yards. The overarching point: No matter the situation, the Gators can get up and down the field, in a hurry, with their running attack.
“Their running game is outstanding,” Harris said. “Our offense did a good job of scoring and making them play catch-up the whole night. Your offense on the field is sometimes your best defense, because it keeps theirs off the field.”
Special teams and turnovers. Cliches become cliches because they turn out to be true so many times over that everybody starts saying them again and again. People talking about the importance of special teams and turnovers say the same variations of “special teams and turnovers can decide a game.” Well, it’s true, and last night proved that.
Wilson took the opening kick 78 yards into your grandma’s kitchen. A blocked punt in the third quarter set up a Central field goal and created a huge 13-point lead for the Broncos.
“Special teams is always a big part of the deal,” Harris said. “You don’t notice it until something bad happens, or something really good happens. We work very hard on special teams. It might’ve been the deciding factor for us tonight.”
While Bukowski’s interception ended what looked to be a promising Central drive in the second quarter, that turnover was canceled out by a Clark fumble that led to a Wilson touchdown. The biggest turnover came in the third quarter, when Burney had bulled his way down inside the Central 10-yard line, only to lose the ball around the 5. The fumble came right after a 41-yard run by Clark, and it killed what looked like the go-ahead scoring drive for the Gators. Central recovered the loose ball, and two plays later, the Broncos made the play of the game.
On third-and-6, Bukowski took a clean five-step drop and lofted the ball down the right seam. Jean-Louis raced the ball to the spot, between the 30 and 40-yard lines (I couldn’t tell from where I was standing), caught it, and took off for a back-breaking 91-yard touchdown to make it 38-25 Central. It was a huge momentum swing and gave Central the points it needed to hang on as Gardens made a furious comeback.
“I really thought we had momentum when we cut it to 31-25,” Gardens coach Chris Davis said. “Turnovers hurt us. That was a big fumble, but this team kept fighting. I don’t think we ever went away.”
Gardens recovered an onsides kick after Burney punched in a 1-yard score to cut the Central lead to six, but the Gators turned the ball over on downs. They got another shot with 7:25 to play, but had to punt it. They burned their timeouts as Central worked the clock, and they never got another shot at the tie.
The Tommy McDonald Show. As much attention as Wilson has gotten — and rightfully so, Wilson has 340 yards rushing and five touchdowns in three games — it was Tommy McDonald who put up huge numbers for Central on Friday. McDonald, a 5-8, 155-pound sophomore, did everything he could to carry his team. He had a big run — a 68-yard sprint that set up Central’s second touchdown — and he punished the Gardens’ D in the fourth quarter while Wilson nursed an ankle injury, taking 10 carries for 43 yards and three game-killing first downs.
Now, Lloyd Howard will return eventually for Central, and Wilson will presumably be ready to play next week, but it has to be nice for Harris knowing he has yet another running option in McDonald.A team that can drive. Gardens turned the ball over downs on its first possession and punted on its second. They fumbled twice and had a punt blocked. But they also put together five very impressive sustained scoring drives, something that a lot of teams struggle with. They racked up 19 first downs and 23 runs for 5 yards or more.
Check out their scoring drives:
(1) Three plays, 51 yards, 1:04 — Clark scored on a 43-yard run
(2) Twelve plays, 80 yards, 3:31 — Jermaine Carn scored on a 3-yard run
(3) Seven plays, 80 yards, 1:48 — Frank Brown scored on a 55-yard screen pass
(4) Nine plays, 74 yards, 2:31 — Clark scored on an 18-yard run
(5) Eight plays, 61 yards, 2:01 — Burney scored on a 1-yard run
My point is, if Gardens can eliminate the turnovers and do a better job of limiting the big plays on defense and special teams, the offense has enough firepower to dominate time of possession and churn out scoring drives. And like I said above, that’s a very difficult thing to do at the high school level. Even the best team in the area, Glades Central, has had trouble sustaining drives this season.
Burney and Clark play a huge role in that, and it was Burney on Friday who took over with the ball in his hands.
“(Burney) took things personally,” Davis said. “He ran with a lot of attitude. That’s one of the things I said the last time when he ran for those numbers. He runs the ball hard. He’s a 210-pound back who can go and, with all due respect to all the other backs in this area, they aren’t that big with his skill level. He’s a very special player and I’m glad he’s on my team.”
Central’s big play ability. I’m picking up a theme as the 2011 season rolls along: Palm Beach Central is going to get a lot of points off big plays. The 91-yard catch-and-run by Jean-Louis. The 78-yard kick return by Wilson. The 68-yard run by Tommy McDonald to set up a score. The blocked punt to create a field goal. A 33-yard strike from Bukowski to EJ Sardinha for a touchdown.
Before the game, Davis talked about all the playmakers Central had and how the Gators had to keep them in check. It was too tall of a task. And it’ll be unenviable challenge for every team remaining on Central’s schedule.
But after Friday night’s game, one thing is clearer than all else: These teams will be fun to watch the rest of the way.