TAMPA — The waiting was the hardest part.
For a little more than two quarters, Jesuit sputtered on offense, surrendered a couple of big plays on defense and committed a personal foul that led to the only score in the game.
Trailing 3-0 late in the third, the Tigers were counting on Tampa Catholic to make the game-turning blunder that has come to define their bitter rivalry over the past decade.
And then — as if part of a script — it happened.
Jesuit linebacker Parker Clonts recovered a fumble in the end zone for the go-ahead score, and the Tigers scored on their next two possessions for a smothering 17-3 victory on Friday.
“When I saw (the ball) pop loose,” said Clonts, who also had 11 tackles, “there was no doubt that I was going to get it. That turned the whole game around.”
Vincent Testaverde threw a 32-yard touchdown, Vincent Jackson and Brad Smith each had a pair of sacks, and the Tigers held Tampa Catholic to a season-low 79 yards of offense.
The Crusaders lost their 13th straight game in this series, a bittersweet regular-season close before their playoff opener at Fort Meade next week.
“This has been the story for the past 10 years or so,” Tampa Catholic coach Bob Henriquez said. “We had very little margin for error, and we made mistakes we couldn’t afford to make.”
In a low-wattage but highly charged affair, the Tigers methodically pounded away at Tampa Catholic with their superior size and depth until they broke open the game late.
With the Crusaders unable to make headway against the Jesuit defense, a personal foul kept alive their only scoring drive of the first half.
A defender shoved fullback T.J. Harrell back to the turf after stopping him on third and 2 near midfield, and Tampa Catholic got another chance. It didn’t waste the opportunity. Kyle Ploucher completed four of his next five passes, including a 13-yarder to Harrell that put it at the 10.
Michael Sarafianos capped the 15-play, 73-yard drive with a 21-yard field goal for the 3-0 lead.
The Tigers spent the rest of the night pushing the Crusaders backward. Tampa Catholic had minus-13 yards in the second half.
“We had them contained pretty much,” Jesuit coach James Harrell said. “We forced their quarterback to beat us.”
That proved virtually impossible without the threat of a running game as the Crusaders were held to 7 yards on 27 carries.
“They looked like scared dogs,” said Smith, a senior defensive end who has committed to USF.
But Jesuit had its own troubles generating offense and points until late in the third, when lineman Tony Torres forced Harrell’s fumble deep in Crusaders territory. The ball squirted into the end zone, where Clonts pounced on it for the touchdown.
Tampa Catholic never recovered, fumbling on its next snap before Ploucher could fall on the ball. That forced the Crusaders to punt from deep in their territory, setting up a short field for Jesuit. The Tigers responded with Rhett Waldron’s 34-yard field goal.
Three plays later, Ploucher’s pass skirted off the fingertips of a receiver and into the waiting arms of defensive back Tim Foley, who was falling to the turf.
On the ensuing third down, Testaverde found Tony Castro streaking behind the defense, which had been aggressively stopping the run, for the game-clinching 32-yard touchdown.
All that was left was the celebration, which Jesuit did with much glee in the final seconds. On the last play, officials called the Tigers for a personal foul but they still stormed in from the sideline for a midfield celebration.
The display angered Henriquez, who chided Harrell and ordered his players off the field before the postgame handshake.
“Whenever we seem to play, there always seem to be some cheap shots,” Henriquez said. “I don’t think either school was happy with how it ended.”
Countered Harrell: “We want to win with class. I was a little disappointed with how things happened, but there were cheap shots throughout the night.”