EAST LAKE — The question leading up to Friday's showdown between Class 7A-District 9 unbeatens was if Pinellas Park has what it takes to stack up with their more-proven hosts, East Lake High.
The Patriots (7-1, 3-1) entered confident that their powerful Wing-T ground attack, averaging a self-reported 435.7 yards per game, would be able to control possession and keep the ball out of the hands of the Eagles' explosive offensive weapons.
East Lake (8-0, 4-0) didn't take long to answer that pregame question.
Less than seven minutes in, the Eagles were up 14-0 en route to a convincing 42-12 pounding.
The win guarantees East Lake the 7A-9 crown and puts it two games away from completing its first-ever perfect 10-0 season.
“That's the first part of our mission,” said senior defensive back Devin Abraham of staying in first place. “We just have to secure districts, play our game and keep progressing every week on our way to the playoffs.”
Abraham represented one of East Lake's many stars on a night that ended with a running clock. The USF commitment returned a pick-6 18 yards late in the third quarter that put the Eagles up 35-6. Abraham ended Pinellas Park's previous drive by blocking a fourth-down pass during an attempted fake punt.
“He is what he is. He's not only a great player, but he's so smart, too,” said East Lake coach Bob Hudson of Abraham. “He's our leader back there.”
Abraham's interception was his fifth of the year and second taken to the house.
The Patriots' running back trio of Pierre Johnson, Donte Maxon and Kal-el Williams struggled to find open lanes all night against East Lake's stout defensive front, getting smothered for 150 yards on 38 attempts. Johnson accounted for 150 of Pinellas Park's 251 total yards.
Weston Fordham and Artavis Scott both cracked the 100-yard mark on the ground for East Lake, scoring three of the team's six touchdowns.
It's no secret that Pinellas Park likes to ground and pound, and keeping the Patriots from doing so was the key to victory.
“Our mindset was that it was going to be a grind,” Abraham said of East Lake's defensive strategy. “We haven't seen many teams than run the Wing-T so we knew it was going to be difficult at first. But once we settled down and played our defense we knew we could take advantage of it.”
The Eagles surrendered just three runs of 10 yards or more Friday and forced Pinellas Park into more passing situations than the Patriots typically like to find themselves. The 12 pass attempts, primarily thrown by Angel Addison, were the most Pinellas Park has logged all year in a single game.
Despite the lopsidedness of the Patriots' offense, Addison did find sporadic success through the air. He hooked up with Johnson on three long connections for 96 total yards and just missed hitting a pair of open first-half targets.
“We knew we'd get some [passing looks from Pinellas Park],” Coach Hudson said. “But the thing is that in practice we tried to break down what they do and we knew we had our best chances of winning by stopping the run.”
Turns out it was Pinellas Park's run defense that had the more difficult task. East Lake piled up 218 total yards and Fordham set the tone by breaking off runs of 44 and 23 yards, respectively, on the Eagles' first two offensive snaps.
Quarterback Jake Hudson capped that drive with a scoring run from the half-yard line and the Eagles never looked back.
That lead doubled to 14-0 less than a minute later when George Campbell and John Lepper sacked Addison and forced a fumble that was scooped up by Jake Hansen for a 14-yard touchdown return.
“We thought all week that if we could get up two [scores] and stay up by two that we would be okay,” Coach Hudson said. “It would just get them out of their comfort zone a little bit.”
Pinellas Park did manage to cut the deficit to 14-6 on Johnson's 6-yard run midway through the second quarter. But after both teams traded punts, Scott boosted the advantage to 21-6 when he took a toss-left and jogged 18 yards into the end zone.
That was the first seven of 28 unanswered East Lake points, finished by Fordham's 16-yard run with 10:41 left in the final period. Williams, Pinellas Park's bruising running back, managed to get the Patriots into double-digits on the scoreboard with a late 6-yard run.
With the district sealed up, East Lake now has its sights set on 10-0. The Eagles have to go on the road for the season's final two games, first to Northeast (1-7) and then to St. Petersburg (6-2).
For Pinellas Park, the stakes just got a lot higher. Friday's loss sets up a win-or-go-home scenario next week against Countryside (6-2). Both teams are 3-1 in league play, meaning the winner slides into second place and the postseason.
PP - 0 – 6 – 0 – 6 --- 12
EL - 14 – 7 – 14 – 7 --- 42
EL – Hudson 1-yard run. PAT kick (LaCamera) – 1st Quarter (6:25)
EL – Hansen 14-yard fumble recovery. PAT kick (LaCamera) – 1st Quarter (5:29)
PP – Johnson 6-yard run. PAT kick failed – 2nd Quarter (7:21)
EL – Scott 18-yard run. PAT kick (LaCamera) – 2nd Quarter (1:36)
EL – Scott 37-yard run. PAT kick (LaCamera) – 3rd Quarter (9:07)
EL – Abraham 18-yard interception return. PAT kick (LaCamera) – 3rd Quarter (0:24)
EL – Fordham 16-yard run. PAT kick (LaCamera) – 4th Quarter (10:41)
PP – Williams 6-yard run. 2 pt. failed – 4th Quarter (3:55)
PP – Johnson (8-54, TD), Williams (10-45, TD), Addison (9-31).
EL – Fordham (10-111, TD), Scott (8-109, 2 TD), Cronin (2-19).
PP – Addison (4-10 for 101), Grondin (1-2 for 3).
EL – Hudson (4-9 for 68).
PP – Johnson (3-96).
EL – Scott (2-39), Campbell (1-31).