BRADENTON – In the annals of Manatee County football lore, rests endless volumes of big games, unthinkable upsets and timeless gridiron glory. So to say that any individual game is big, requires that it meet a pretty high threshold. To say that it has the potential to be the biggest game of them all, surely stinks of hyperbole. Be that as it may, Friday night's game between the Manatee Hurricanes and Palmetto Tigers just might fit the bill, as the two undefeated teams, each sitting atop of their respective class, head into Hawkins Stadium with much more than a post-season on the line.
Palmetto QB Chris Tuten will see plenty of pressure
from Manatee's defensive line.
Coach Kinnan's Manatee Hurricanes came into the season with high expectations. After winning a 5th state title by routing highly-touted Jacksonville First Coast 40-0 at the Citrus Bowl in the 7A title game last season, one look at the 2012 Manatee roster was enough to keep opposing coaches up at night. Sure, the 'Canes sent half a dozen seniors on to play in major college programs, but they were returning their entire defensive line – the one that logged 38 sacks on the season and set a state record when they held First Coast to an unthinkable negative 71-yards rushing in the title game.
On offense, Manatee was returning not only their All-State QB Cord Sandberg, but lighting-fast slot-back Anthony Lauro and their giant blind-side tackle Thor Miller. In 2011, Coach Kinnan boosted his team's cred on the national scene by scheduling not one, but two national showcase games against the No. 1 and 4 programs in the country. A questionable call in overtime cost them the first game at Good Counsel (Olney, MD) and they came within a botched punt of beating eventual consensus national champions Don Bosco Prep (New Jersey). They were also the only team to give either squad a close game.
So it wasn't a surprise that Manatee opened the season ranked no. 1 in one of the three polls for national high school football rankings, while making the top three of each. The 'Canes benefited from some of the other top teams getting knocked off early and have now moved to the top spot in all three of the polls. Hence, the path is clear for Coach Kinnan to not only win another state title, but to cap off his career with that ever elusive national title, that so few coaches – even legendary ones – ever come to see.
|Palmetto must contain QB Cord Sandberg|
Enter Palmetto. The Tigers came even closer than it seemed to winning a second state title last season, as they clawed and scratched their way through a tough schedule in the 5A division to capture both district and regional titles with a 12-2 record. The Tigers gave Manatee their toughest game on a wet and rainy field late in the season, coming only one drive short of a major upset. Then they nearly beat a nationally-ranked, undefeated Miami Norland team in the state semi-finals, before they went on to a 35-0 victory in the championship, meaning Palmetto had given two state championship teams their closest games of the season (outside of Manatee's national showcase games, which were the only two they lost in 2011).
This season, however, hopes were not quite as high north of the bridge. Palmetto had lost several key players to graduation, including Trent Miller, the senior transfer student who came in at QB as the missing piece of the puzzle and seemed to tie the team together. Their defense had lost its three biggest stars, all of whom moved on to college programs. Yes, they returned county rushing champion Josh Hicks and a promising corps of receivers who'd been starting for three years, but with a questionable defense and no answer at QB, most wondered whether there would be any chance that the Tigers could recapture the spark of 2011.
Palmetto head coach Dave Marino has made sure that no one will doubt him so easily in the future. Marino, a protege of the legendary Paul Maechtle at Southeast, is quickly making a name for himself among the elite coaches of the area. The Tigers 2012 season has been a wacky roller coaster ride with more drama than I'm sure Marino would have liked, but the Tigers have benefited from plenty of happy accidents along the way.
Senior Spencer Atkins was the second transfer in a row to choose Palmetto after attending the elite IMG football academy. Atkins, who studied under former Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke at IMG and came in with high praise, seemed like he might be the answer to the Tigers' quarterback dillema. But Palmetto's week 1 win over Riverview came at a steep price, as both Atkins and Hicks went down with injuries that kept them out several weeks.
|Willie Smith will have to have a big night for the 'Canes|
That's when things got interesting. Marino threw senior WR Corey Crawford in at RB and the fireworks started. Crawford turned in one amazing performance after another, rushing for 277 yards on just 11 carries in the Tigers' victory over Sarasota. Week after week, Crawford turned in gaudy numbers on only 10-15 carries per game, snapping runs of 50-plus yards every few times he touched the ball. Crawford did so well that Hicks selflessly volunteered to move to defensive back when he finally returned in week 5.
But the thinly-built Crawford wasn't holding up well to the punishment in the backfield and had to sit out against Lakewood Ranch. Hicks quickly stepped in, racking up a 278-yard rushing performance against the Mustangs, while snapping TD runs of 87, 65 and 57 yards. Meanwhile, sophomore QB Chris Tuten not only stepped up and earned the starting job, but began to emerge as one of the area's biggest deep pass threats, building up a highlight reel in hitting Crawford, E.J Burston and Shaq Harris for one TD after another.
With Hicks in full form and Crawford now a double threat, Palmetto is twice as dangerous. Burston has emerged as one of the best after-the-catch receivers in the area and Harris is capable of pulling down passes, even when covered like a blanket. Tuten is still hesitant and sometimes puts too much air under the ball, allowing secondaries too much time to converge, but when he settles down and makes good decisions, he can get the ball down the field in a hurry. Friday night will be all about match-ups.
|RB Josh Hicks will be the center of Palmetto's attack|
Manatee hasn't put up less than 40 points all season, even against big-school powerhouses like Miramar and Miami Central. Three times the 'Canes have put up over 50, including last week against a very good Venice squad. If Palmetto is to stay in the game, they have got to make Manatee punt more than other teams have been able to so far this season. Lauro is out after undergoing season-ending surgery, but young RB Trevon Walters has matured into the feature back that the 'Canes lacked at this year's start. Sanders is bigger, more seasoned and still as tough to take down as a armored tank, while WR Marquel Hines has emerged as Manatee's big-play threat. Kinnan's offense is nothing short of awesome.
However, despite outright dominance so far this season, Manatee has at times shown some chinks in the armor. They have been susceptible to the big play, especially RB's who can get outside the tackles quickly, or hit the holes fast enough to challenge the linebackers. Hicks will be the best running back they've seen so far this season and Crawford will be the fastest thing that's been on Manatee's field. Even if the 'Canes control the line of scrimmage and dominate possession time, Palmetto can put plenty of points on the board.
The Manatee secondary struggled with Miami Central's pass-heavy offense, which also sported three quality receivers, though not as good as Palmetto's Burston, Crawford and Harris. Even if Hicks has a big night, Palmetto will not be able to upset the Hurricanes with the ground game alone. Palmetto has the advantage in every matchup in the air, which means their chances will rest on their young QB's ability to hit his receivers, while Manatee's relentless front four is in his face. For Manatee, free safety Willie Smith will be also be a key player Friday night, as his ability to help out the 'Canes defensive backs will be crucial, as will their young linebackers' ability to step up and stop the run when it gets by their big front four.
Manatee is certainly the favorite, but history might be on Palmetto's side. Both Kinnan and Maechtle know what it's like to come into a game ranked No. 1 in the nation and leave with nothing but lost hopes – Manatee in 1991, Southeast in 1994 – both upset at the hands of Riverview. On Friday night, Marino will try to etch his own name in the history books, as Kinnan tries to move one step closer to the final trophy that has thus far eluded his storied career. Whoever comes out on top, it will undoubtedly be a game to remember.
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