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TAMPA — In the wake of early-season losses to Plant and Robinson, the Jesuit Tigers meticulously carved their way back into playoff contention, one cloud of dust at a time.
Four consecutive wins and three quarterbacks later, their postseason hopes are percolating again. Friday night, when the Tigers (5-2, 5-1) step onto the synthetic turf of Alumni Field for their regionally televised showdown against unbeaten Lakewood, the stakes will be astronomical.
And the style points will be minimal.
"We're just going to play Jesuit football," third-year coach James Harrell said. "And that's the bottom line."
These days, Jesuit football consists of far more handoffs than hitch-and-go routes. Flustered by his passing game's inconsistency in the first three contests (46-percent completion rate, three INTs, two TDs), Harrell resorted almost exclusively to a power-run game.
In its last four contests (albeit against inferior competition), Jesuit has totaled 28 passes and averaged 282 rushing yards, while its defense hasn't allowed a point.
The running game "is the key, and playing good, solid defense," Harrell said. "And you've got to win in the kicking game. I mean, it's proven. You look at what (University of Florida coach) Will Muschamp did to LSU, look at what Nick Saban's done at Alabama. You've just got to be committed to the run."
While sophomore tailback Kevin Newman has flourished (107 carries, 711 yards, seven TDs) in this leather-helmet scheme, the true catalyst may be Jesuit's seasoned offensive line.
USF-bound tackles Cameron Ruff and Robby Garcia, guards T.J. Suarez and Michael Suarez, center Patrick Powers and tight end Drew Paulsen have combined for 67 pancake blocks. Ruff, Garcia and junior Division I prospect Vincent Jackson (nine sacks) anchor a defensive front that hasn't allowed a second-half TD this year — not even to Plant or Robinson.
"Our style of offense really gives (the o-line) an opportunity to showcase those skills and talents," offensive line coach and Jesuit alumnus Brian McNulty said. "It's hard work, but our offensive linemen have that sense of pride in knowing that if they perform well the team will be a success."
Question now is, can they be a success against a quality foe?
Whereas the combined record of Jesuit's previous four opponents is 7-20, Lakewood is 6-0 and has allowed nine points all year. And while the Spartans also have gone more conservative, they retain quick-strike ability behind quarterback Tracy Johnson and Division I-bound receiver Rodney Adams.
Anticipating he might have to throw more this week, especially if Lakewood gets up early, Harrell has named 6-foot-1 junior Vincent Testaverde — whose Heisman-winning dad helps coordinate Jesuit's passing game — as his third starting quarterback of the season.
"He gives us the best chance to win," Harrell said, "and I think in the developmental process, he's progressed rapidly."
Yet if Harrell has his druthers, and the defense remains stout, Testaverde's most prolific tosses will be toss-backs — to Newman, senior Reggie Brown (33 carries, 323 yards), junior Ryan Black (46 carries, 224 yards) and maybe even a few surprises.
For now, this is Jesuit football.
"I have to cater to the skill set of our players," Harrell said, "and the strength of our team is the o-line and d-line."
Photo: Willie J. Allen Jr.