TAMPA — On his 30th rushing attempt of the game, Ray Ray McCloud ducked his helmet into the line, eluded the grasp of a Hillsborough defender and twisted his way for a 2-yard gain.
With little more than a minute to go, McCloud had moved Sickles from third and 2 to first and 10. All that was left for the Gryphons was the victory formation.
It was the finishing — and fitting — touch on one of the biggest wins in Sickles history.
McCloud’s final carry gave him 171 yards, the last act in a 48-minute show of force in the Gryphons’ 23-22 victory Friday night over previously undefeated Hillsborough in a key Class 6A-8 matchup.
“I was exhausted,” McCloud said of “24 Base,” the play call for that game-clinching run. “But we said in the huddle that if we get it, it’s over. So I had to get those 2 yards.”
McCloud rushed for two touchdowns and blocked a field-goal attempt, Wes Harris had two interceptions and Sickles (4-2, 2-1) held Hillsborough to 223 yards of offense — 136 yards below its average — in a bruising win that preserved the Gryphons’ playoff hopes for another week.
Coming off a 20-16 loss last week at Armwood, the Gryphons were emboldened by their strong effort against one of the county’s powerhouse programs.
If they couldn’t finish the job against the Hawks, they said, they would have to do it against a team they had never beaten in three previous attempts. Hillsborough beat the Gryphons 20-10 last year in a game that essentially ended their fledgling postseason hopes.
The Gryphons managed to pull out the season-saving victory Friday despite fumbling seven times, losing the ball twice, and committing seven penalties for 62 yards.
“We haven’t done anything,” Sickles coach Brian Turner said he told his team earlier in the week. “We have to win one of these games to get some respect.”
And without star defensive end Jordan Sherit, who sustained a season-ending injury in last week’s win over Jefferson, Hillsborough had little to no success slowing McCloud.
A 165-pound sophomore who came into Friday averaging 124 rushing yards, McCloud played much bigger than his size against the Terriers. He was never thrown for a loss on any of his 30 runs and continually moved the chains.
McCloud fell just short of his career-high 175 yards in a victory over Brandon two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Sickles came up with stop after stop against the Terriers (5-1, 3-1), who were averaging 349 yards per game and outscored their first five opponents by an average of 42-15.
But the Gryphons made their biggest stop late in the game, on fourth and inches from their own 41 with 2:40 left.
Sickles senior linebacker Adekunle Olusanya burst through an opening in Hillsborough’s offensive line and found himself facemask-to-facemask with the running back.
Olusanya brought Jeremiah Green to the turf, thwarting the Terriers’ final comeback attempt and setting off a wild celebration on Sickles’ sideline and in the stands of the Gryphons’ Lair.
“I had seen that play on film,” Olusanya said. “The defensive line made the play and I just had to make the tackle.”