CLEARWATER — The question marks surrounding Countryside's defense continued to build with each regular-season game.
The Cougars, who averaged 37 points a game, could score on anybody it seemed. The defense, well, it was a work in progress.
Friday, though, against Freedom in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs, that much-maligned defensive unit rose to the occasion when the Cougars needed it most.
Countryside held Freedom to only 43 rushing yards on 21 carries and yielded just 157 yards total to spur the Cougars to a 17-7 win, its first playoff victory since 2003.
The Cougars (10-1) will travel to play Tampa Bay Tech in the region semifinals.
"That's the best (the defense has) played all year," Countryside coach John Davis said. "I thought they really stepped up against Largo two weeks ago. And then again tonight, just a physical effort. That's a good football team that we played against. They just kept us in the football game."
The defense harassed Freedom quarterback Tyler Guy all night, sacking him five times and keeping him off balance in the pocket. In the first half, the Patriots mustered only one first down and 10 yards.
Countryside moved the ball effectively on the ground but self-destructed twice in the red zone in the first half. A 40-yard field goal by the Cougars' William Griswold was the only scoring in the half.
"At halftime, I felt like we were physically dominating the game," Davis said. "… We moved the ball every time, we just stepped on our own foot."
Freedom (7-3) had its only sustained drive after halftime, marching 77 yards on nine plays and taking the lead on Guy's 30-yard strike to T.J. Mutcherson.
The Cougars responded immediately, riding its workhorse running back Alton Taylor to recapture the lead. Taylor had 50 of his 235 total yards on the ensuing drive, which was capped by Terry Johnson's 14-yard run up the middle to put Countryside ahead 10-7.
When Freedom drove to the Cougars' 33 midway through the fourth, Countryside's defense again responded, forcing Guy into two straight incompletions and partially blocking a 51-yard field-goal attempt by Alex Landeta to preserve the lead.
Taylor then put the game out of reach, running 9 yards off the right side with 1:14 left to culminate a 10-play, 70-yard drive.
"Alton just got hot tonight, and the more you give him the ball, the better he gets," Davis said. "That offensive line I think just kind of wore them down as the game went on. … But, Alton is just awesome."