TAMPA — Jefferson coach Mike Fenton secretly wondered how his team would handle its first adversity of the season — how players so used to running through opponents would rebound from the reality of playing from behind.
Friday, he got his answer.
Against Ocala Vanguard in the Class 3A region final, the Dragons trailed at the half for the first time this season after a miffing first two quarters of penalty flags and a special teams blunder.
But they scored 29 unanswered points to win 49-27 and reach their second straight state semifinal.
"That brought us back down to earth," senior quarterback Quentin Williams said of the poor first half. "We're happy it happened now rather than later. It was on us. We told ourselves we didn't want to go home."
The Dragons (13-0), who lost in the state semifinals last year in Pensacola, face St. Augustine next week.
"This is something we've looked forward to for about a year," Fenton said. "Our goal was not just to get there. Our goal is to win the state championship."
Despite taking a quick 14-0 lead, Jefferson spent most of the first half backpedaling, committing 13 penalties for 115 yards and allowing the Knights (10-3) back into the game. And Vanguard took a 21-20 lead on Devon Tyson's 81-yard kickoff return.
"When playoff time comes, adversity is going to come," Jefferson senior receiver Andre Davis said. "It's going to come sooner or later. It came tonight."
Jefferson came out of the locker room a different team, scoring three touchdowns in a span of three minutes by taking advantage of two fumbles, including a failed hook-and-lateral that became a gift to cornerback Rashad Dunnigan.
Williams, who threw for 240 of his 327 yards in the first half, broke Tim Tebow's state record for passing yards with a 45-yard touchdown to Chris Moore that made it 42-21 with 3:28 left in the third. The touchdown, his 51st of the season, also tied ex-Plant quarterback Aaron Murray's Hillsborough County record.
After the game, Williams and Davis shook their heads. The celebration was tempered by Jefferson's first scare of the season.
"We can't enjoy it now," Williams said. "That's why we lost up (in Pensacola last year)."