ORLANDO — Dr. Phillips’ defensive game plan rarely wavers from week to week. It starts with rushing the passer. The rest trickles down from there.
But early in Friday night’s Class 8A region final against East Lake, one of the state’s top passing offenses, that plan seemed ineffective.
Eagles quarterback Pete DiNovo, a Central Florida commit, moved out of the pocket and relied on his quick delivery to carve up the Panthers, completing 16-of-20 passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns to give East Lake a 21-14 first-half lead.
Then came the second half.
Dr. Phillips dialed up the pressure as the Panthers (13-0) sent linebackers and defensive backs on blitzes off the edge. The sacks came in bunches, and the first-half lead slipped away.
The Eagles (11-2) gave up four sacks and were outscored 17-0 in the second half in a 31-21 loss to Dr. Phillips, the top-ranked team in 8A and 17th team nationally by USA Today.
“Dr. Phillips has a great team,” said DiNovo, who finished with 318 yards passing. “Their defense came hard in the second half. Real hard. I could definitely feel the pressure.”
Entering the game, the Eagles knew the only way to slow down the rush was to hit quick passes. DiNovo delivered on the first drive, completing all 11 of his passes, the last a 37-yard TD to George Campbell to give East Lake a 7-0 lead.
On the next drive, DiNovo was perfect again. He completed four straight passes, including a 7-yarder to Artavis Scott, to put the Eagles ahead 14-0 in the second quarter.
The Panthers found some rhythm on offense after that, getting big plays from their run game. Deionte Gaines broke the biggest one, a 41-yarder for a score, to cut the deficit to 14-7.
After that, DiNovo made his only mistake of the first half, throwing an interception near the end zone. Dr. Phillips capitalized, tying the score on a 5-yard run by Eric Harrell.
But DiNovo showed some moxie, moving the Eagles on another drive that was capped off by an 11-yard pass to Dylan Renaker for a touchdown to make it 21-14 at the half.
“We were real confident, especially the way we were playing in the first half,” DiNovo said. “We were executing everything to the best of our abilities.”
Unable to create pressure just with their front four, the Panthers got creative in finding ways to make DiNovo uncomfortable in the pocket. Blitzing more with other players, DiNovo was under siege and completed only two of his first five passes in the second half.
It forced the Eagles into plenty of third and longs — and resulted in a lot of punts. The Eagles punted five times in the second half after not punting once in the first. And the running game was nonexistent, getting minus-42 yards on 16 carries.
Dr. Phillips’ offense, meanwhile, stuck mainly to its run game. The Panthers got a 26-yard field goal from Ethan Shafer in the third quarter to cut it to 21-17.
Then came the back breaker when East Lake was forced to punt on its next possession and Gaines returned it 55 yards for a touchdown to give Dr. Phillips a 24-21 lead.
For the Eagles’ defense, it was a game of missed opportunities. It dropped three interceptions, including one by Devin Abraham in the third quarter that likely would have gone for a touchdown.
And when East Lake needed to make a stand, it couldn’t.
In the fourth quarter, the Panthers went on a clock-eating drive in which they converted two fourth-down attempts, including the last one that Harrell ran in from 3 yards for the final score.
The Eagles had one final drive but it ended on downs.
It was a tough loss for East Lake, which lost a first-half lead in the region final to a nationally-ranked team for the second straight season. The Eagles lost in overtime to Plant last year.
“We just had a lot of missed opportunities,” Eagles coach Bob Hudson said. “But I’m so proud of these guys. They got this far and we’re knocking on the door.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to break through one day.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BobbyHomeTeam.