Gators survive close call
By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
LAND O'LAKES -- A win is a win. Especially in the playoffs.
Land O'Lakes edged Ocala Vanguard 14-6 at Gator Stadium on Friday to win its second playoff game in the school's 28 years, the first since 1993.
But if the 11-0 Gators are to keep winning in the postseason, they have some tough questions to answer as they prepare to host Merritt Island in next week's region semifinal.
"I know we made a lot of mental mistakes that we cannot afford to make in the playoffs," coach John Benedetto said. "Because every team we play is going to be better and better."
What happened to the Gators offense? Was it the Knights' defensive speed and relentless blitzing? Or all those missed assignments? Why did a unit that averaged 126 yards and 40.8 points per game manage just 126 yards?
"We're not used to the speed they have," quarterback Drew Weatherford said.
He should know. He was the target of a defensive scheme that sacked him three times, chased him out of the pocket endlessly and harassed him into a 6-of-11 performance that yielded just 51 yards and two touchdowns.
"I got flustered personally and I think everyone did. It's not supposed to happen to the quarterback, but they did a wonderful job ... they got us out of our game plan."
Vanguard coach Phillip Yancey said his foes' weakness was apparent.
"I think speed was a factor, and that's going to be Land O'Lakes' biggest challenge as they go into the playoffs," he said.
But lack of execution may have hurt the Gators more. After all, the Knights were down 14-0 in the first quarter and out of it for much of the game.
True, Vanguard was missing its two best tailbacks, best quarterback and receiver. But it still had a physical offensive line that helped reserve tailback Adam Williams rush for 124 yards.
Land O'Lakes' defense kept its foe in check for three quarters and forced five turnovers, recovering four. Two blown plays could have ended the game sooner: Keith Elser's 45-yard interception return was called back on a holding penalty in the first half, and Logan Payne dropped a pass 10 yards from the end zone in the second half.
Weatherford believes the Gators will play better next week because they'll be fully recovered. Not from Vanguard. From Wesley Chapel.
The quarterback said that 27-23 win Nov. 8 may have drained his teammates.
"I don't like playing Wesley Chapel at the end of the year," Weatherford said. "It's such a big game, such a big rivalry, and we almost felt like we were flat (against Vanguard.)"
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