JOHN C. COTEY
Forced to turn to a freshman quarterback, the Packers turn the district race into chaos.
LARGO - His senior starting quarterback quit earlier this week, so Rick Rodriguez played musical quarterbacks Friday night.
Sophomore back-up Mike Helm started, but he was suffering from a sore thumb and couldn't grip a football and was done after one series.
He tried junior Dexter McCluster, a running back, but hesitated to have his best player scrambling for his life on every play.
Ultimately, in Largo's biggest game of the season against the county's best team in Countryside, he had to turn to a freshman.
Leonard Johnson Jr. did what Largo's quarterbacks haven't been able to do all season - play mistake-free ball. He didn't lose a fumble, didn't throw an interception and was able to make McCluster's fine work stand up in an 18-16 win, setting up a Monday tiebreaker at Countryside to determine the playoff teams from Class 4A, District 9.
Dixie Hollins and Largo (4-4) will play one quarter at 7 p.m., with the winner to meet Countryside afterward. If Countryside wins, it will be district champ and the loser will be runner-up. If Countryside loses, Dixie or Largo will be champ, and the Cougars will have to play the first-quarter loser for runner-up rights.
The Cougars (7-1) could have wrapped up the title and eliminated the Packers, but couldn't stop McCluster, who had 50- and 65-yard touchdown runs and set up a field goal with a 50-yard kickoff return to start the game.
With Johnson no threat to light it up through the air, McCluster was Largo's only hope. And Countryside was focused on stopping him.
"But you still have to tackle him," said Cougars coach John Davis. "Great players don't need a whole lot (of room)."
McCluster had 182 yards rushing, accounting for 75 percent of Largo' 245 total yards. His 65-yard run put Largo ahead 15-10 in the third quarter, but early in the fourth quarter, he was driven into the turf by two Cougars and would not return.
Enter Johnson. With Countryside driving, at midfield, he picked a deflected Harrison Beck pass out of midair and ran it back to the Cougar 13 with 3:28 remaining.
It was a huge play, because it set up Kyle Holmes 35-yard field goal that made it 18-10 with 3:12 left.
"I was nervous at quarterback, but the big play was the interception," said Johnson, a starter at cornerback all season.
Showing life for the first time all night, Countryside came right back, going 80 yards in seven plays as Mike James beat Robert Martin for a 20-yard score with 1:55 remaining.
But the very next play, on a two-point try to tie by Countryside, Martin made a diving deflection on a slant pass to James, preserving Largo's lead.
The Packers recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
Beck finished 16 of 33 passing for 207 yards, but his two interceptions - both were tipped - led to 10 Largo points. He was also the team's top rusher with 32 yards as the Packer defense held Countryside to 91 total.