LARGO — There’s no such thing as an ugly win, especially in the playoffs. Just ask Largo, which entered Friday’s Class 6A region opener against Countryside without starting quarterback Brandon Coppola and linebacker AJ Mathis, then saw superstar senior Jayion McCluster get nicked up and hobble off the field at the end of the first half.
Luckily for the host Packers, the defense continued its run of stout play. This allowed the patchwork offense to find itself and muscle its way to a 14-0 victory.
Now at 8-3, Largo — seeded second in Region 2 — will host No. 3 Lake Minneola next. Seventh seed Countryside finishes its season with a 6-5 record.
Using the first 24 minutes as a time of discovery, the Packers went through three different quarterbacks (sophomores Garrett Gurney and Jonquis Bonney as well as McCluster) while having eight different players tote the rock. The host struggled to 121 yards of production in the first half, seeing McCluster injure his leg on a goal-line play, but figured out what had to be done in the second half.
“We’ve got to pound,” said running back Andre Bell. “As long as the offensive line keeps blocking, hopefully it will open something up. That’s what happened. We’d pick up 4 yards, pick up 4 yards, and then something popped open.”
“Once our O-line got rowdy and settled down, we put it on their backs,” Packers coach Marcus Paschal said of center Collin Shaw, guards Keion Dunlap and Daniel Warren, and tackles Jaydan Harris and Jacob Campbell. “When they all get in tune, we can be very special running the ball.”
Leaning on Bell and senior Zuri McClary, Largo did get the ball moving after a scoreless first half. Bell ripped off runs of 15, 10 and 36 yards to spark a game-changing 78-yard drive that Gurney finished with a 1-yard TD sneak where he was stuffed going up the middle before battling through two tacklers to his right to find the end zone.
“We trust our offensive line,” said Bell, who exploded for 83 rushing yards in the third quarter and 108 total. “I was cutting and seeing open lanes and I knew we’d be okay from there.”
Meanwhile, a Countryside offense that rolled for more than 400 yards against Largo late in September was shackled to just 98 yards total on Friday. Sparked by interceptions from Dean Paul, Seyvion Scott and finally McCluster (who returned but played only defense in the second half), the Packers held the Cougars to a pair of long field-goal attempts in the first half.
“They’re a heck of a defense,” Cougars coach Eric Schmitz said. “We had some opportunities but we just weren’t able to take advantage. That’s what happens in playoff games.”
“I just couldn’t let the little quarterback (moblie junior Kamrhen Simpkins) stop us,” Paschal said. “In the regular season, we were very vanilla, set in a couple of coverages and (Simpkins) picked us apart. We weren’t going to let him do that (Friday), simple as that.”
Gurney showed off his arm on Largo's final drive, hitting Khaishef Edwards for a huge 44-yard completion and third-down conversion before Jarrod Briscoe pulled off a beautiful fingertip grab of a 20-yard Gurney toss for the final Packer score with 1:41 left in the game.
“We have two sophomore quarterbacks, both have skill sets they excel at and both are going to play going forward,” Paschal concluded. “(Friday) was a grinder but, who knows, next week we might have to spread it out a little bit. I’m excited about both of them.”
Speaking of his season just completed, Schmitz said: “It was gratifying to see them, especially the seniors, understand what character is, how to stick together and come together as a family. We’re going to miss them as a group.”
Region football semifinals
All games 7:30 p.m. next Friday.
Class 2A, Region 3
• No. 3 Seffner Christian at No. 2 Northside Christian
• No. 4 Admiral Farragut at No. 1 Cambridge Christian
Class 3A, Region 3
• No. 5 Clearwater Central Catholic at No. 1 Berkeley Prep
Class 4A, Region 3
• No. 4 Clewiston at No. 1 Lakewood
• No. 3 Tampa Catholic at No. 2 Delray Beach American Heritage
Class 5A, Region 3
• No. 8 Chamberlain at No. 4 Jesuit
Class 5A, Region 2
• No. 4 Nature Coast at No. 1 Orlando Jones
Class 6A, Region 2
• No. 5 Clearwater at No. 1 Gaither
• No. 3 Lake Minneola at No. 2 Largo
Class 7A, Region 3
• No. 3 Manatee at No. 2 Mitchell
Class 7A, Region 2
• No. 5 Bloomingdale at No. 1 Armwood
• No. 6 Tampa Bay Tech at No. 2 Lakeland
Class 8A, Region 2
• No. 4 Steinbrenner at No. 1 Sarasota Riverview