TAMPA — Alonso was running behind from the start, a victim of rush-hour traffic compounded by a terrible accident on the northbound lanes of Interstate 75.
The buses didn’t arrive at the stadium until 30 minutes before the scheduled kickoff, forcing officials to give the Ravens an extra 15 minutes to go through their pregame routine.
And once the whistles were blown, Wharton’s Vernon Hargreaves III and Jeffery Keil never gave Alonso a chance to catch up.
Keil totaled 206 yards of offense and four touchdowns and Hargreaves made huge plays in all three phases of the game Friday, lifting the Wildcats to a 37-20 victory that clinched the remaining playoff spot in Class 8A, District 6.
“We came in with a playoff mind-set,” said Keil, a junior running back. “We knew we had to win tonight or go home.”
Wharton (7-2, 2-1) rolled up 351 yards of offense, forced three turnovers, and held the Ravens to 2 rushing yards, a season-low effort that was a byproduct of the absence of Alonso tailback Ish Witter.
The Ravens (5-4, 1-2) desperately missed leading rusher Witter, who has 1,001 yards of offense and six touchdowns this fall, in their biggest game of the season. Witter watched from the sideline, his right foot in a brace, with a high-ankle sprain he sustained in last week’s win over Tampa Catholic.
“We had absolutely no running game tonight,” Alonso coach Brian Emanuel said. “We’re usually pretty balanced with the run and the pass — it’s a point of pride for us.”
Forced into a one-dimensional attack, the Ravens were on the wrong end of a shootout that got started before they really got going.
Their problems began shortly after leaving their campus in northwest Tampa; the Ravens didn’t get to Wharton High until about 7 p.m. because of traffic on I-75.
Officials gave them more time for warmups but they were still running through warmups just before the national anthem.
“Whether it had an affect on the outcome, I don’t know,” Emanuel said. “But it sure put us in a bind.”
Hargreaves compounded their problems with two game-turning plays in the first quarter.
The Florida commit opened the game with a 60-yard kickoff return down the right sideline, almost breaking it for a touchdown. Wharton quarterback Chase Litton — normally the focus of the Wildcats offense — then handed it off five straight times to Keil, who capped the short drive with a 2-yard score.
On fourth down of the ensuing possession, Hargreaves came from around the edge to block an Alonso punt. Fritzner Jean-Francois recovered the ball at the Alonso 19.
Five plays later, Keil scored his second touchdown on an 8-yard run to give the Wildcats a 14-0 lead.
“Vernon is a game-changer,” Wharton coach David Mitchell said. “No matter where you put him, he makes things happen.”
Alonso fought back behind the right arm of senior quarterback Brandon Hawkins, who threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns.
Hawkins connected with receiver Derius Davis on a jump ball midway through the second quarter, and Davis fought off two defenders for a 32-yard touchdown that closed Wharton’s lead to 14-7.
But the Wildcats continued feeding Keil after halftime and he scored two more touchdowns, once after Hargreaves set him up with a 21-yard run on fourth down to the Alonso 2.
Keil rushed for a touchdown on the next play.
“Teams now are going to have to realize that we can run too,” said Keil, who finished with a season-high 163 yards rushing. “They’ll have to respect that.”