EAST LAKE — When East Lake coach Bob Hudson was asked about his defense, he seemed more excited speaking on that subject than anything else after a 35-21 victory over rival Palm Harbor University that clinched the Eagles’ second straight Class 8A, District 7 title.
“It’s not how you win, but when you win,” Hudson said. “We’ve got all these skills that have been together in 7-on-7 and everything else. But our defense is young. They’re getting better and made a lot of big stops tonight. It was big.”
Early on, East Lake’s defense showed signs of life, stuffing the run and creating a turnover. It also held repeatedly on fourth down. And some players believe in those moments, for the first time, that the defense would evolve from a crippling liability into an asset.
With seven new starters, the defense has worked in the shadow of a high-octane offense. There was trouble early in the season, especially against the run.
That gave the Hurricanes a blue print for staying in Friday’s game. PHU (7-2, 2-1) entered averaging more than 200 yards on the ground and hoped to use its ball-control offense to wear down the Eagles (8-1, 3-0) and keep their offense off the field.
But Hurricane runs were met by a wall of pads. And an unyielding front four kept PHU quarterback Tyler Kaminski on the run most of the night.
“We knew the biggest thing we had to do was stop the run, and we did a pretty good of that,” East Lake linebacker Brendan Goettel said.
Eagles quarterback Pete DiNovo also was under siege early on. He was sacked once and started 0-for-2 with an interception on East Lake’s first two drives.
But DiNovo settled down and got into a rhythm. He hit Dylan Renaker on a 5-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead. In the second quarter, DiNovo ran 2 yards for another score to make it 14-0.
“Palm Harbor is a good team and Matt Lepain is a good coach,” DiNovo said. “They came out in a different defense and that confused a little bit at the start of the game. We just had to make some adjustments and get everyone involved.”
The Hurricanes rallied in the second quarter as Kaminski hit Tyler Ruth on a 15-yard scoring pass to cut the deficit to 14-7.
But with about two minutes remaining in the half, the Eagles had their first big play on offense. DiNovo threw a short pass to George Campbell, who eluded one tackler and raced down the sideline for a 69-yard TD to give East Lake a 21-7 halftime lead.
PHU dominated time of possession in the third quarter, running 21 plays to the Eagles’ 4. In the fourth, the Hurricanes gambled as Ruth hit Connor Dorris on a 3-yard shovel pass off a fake field goal to cut it to 21-14.
That was as close as PHU would get. DiNovo threw a 13-yard scoring pass to Chris DePaolo and Weston Fordham ran 7 yards for a touchdown to put the Eagles ahead 35-14.
Kaminski threw a 37-yard touchdown to Quentin Cumings in the final minute. The Hurricanes tried for an onside kick but were unable to recover.