Wharton's defense lives by a simple creed: "What starts at zero should end with zero."
The Wildcats (10-1) have come close to fulfilling that impossible task, allowing 75 points in 11 games. But their moment of truth came Friday in the sixth-year school's first playoff game at Melbourne.
Small but quick off the ball, Melbourne had the Wildcats on their heels, rushing for 280 yards. After Melbourne put together 80-yard scoring drives at the end of the first half and the beginning of the third quarter for a 13-7 lead, senior linebacker Joe Hall said the Wildcats were staggered.
But Hall made the first of several key plays when he blocked the extra point after Melbourne's second touchdown to keep the margin at six. After Wharton regained the lead 14-13 midway through the fourth, the defense stuffed two late Melbourne drives to secure the win and advance to a region semifinal at Durant on Friday.
"The kids really picked it up in the fourth quarter," defensive coordinator Earl Goodman said. "We didn't play a good third quarter, but we started tackling better, got more aggressive off the ball and we pinched off the outside and forced them to run up the middle. (Linebacker) Larry Edwards came back in the game and made some nice plays."
Like Melbourne, Durant (10-1) operates its offense from the Wing-T. But in addition to stopping tailback Trae Williams (1,374 yards, 24 touchdowns) and halfback R.J. Pollard (647 yards, seven touchdowns), the Wildcats must stop Cougar quarterback Jared Walker.
Walker capitalized on opponents keying on the run this season, completing 27 passes for 747 yards, more than 31 yards per catch. Most of those went to Williams and Pollard, who combined with Walker for scoring bombs of 32, 55 and 73 yards to defeat Hillsborough 35-19 in their first-round game last week.
Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia has seen plenty of both teams this year, also losing to Wharton 21-0.
"The thing that impresses you with Durant, especially in a Wing-T offense where they handle the ball a lot, is that they don't make many mistakes," Garcia said. "They don't fool you with a lot of different plays. But they are very disciplined, very workmanlike and they don't commit a lot of penalties and they don't turn the ball over. They prey on undisciplined defenses.
"But they're playing an experienced, attacking defense in Wharton that is physical and fast. I think Durant can move the ball on Wharton and score. But over the course of four quarters, Wharton might be more physically talented and be hard to move the ball against most of the game."
Wharton allowed 62 points during the regular season, coming within a touchdown and an extra point of tying Hillsborough's 50-year-old record for least points allowed (55). Chasing the record provided a source of pride for Wood, a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1976-84.
"To do something like that as a sixth-year school is something to be proud of," Wood said. "Particularly because we had to build and develop to that point. That's what makes it even more fulfilling."
"They don't have any weaknesses on defense," Durant coach David New said. "They're well coached and they keep coming the whole game."