If there’s one thing Dunbar head football coach Phil Vogt knows, it’s that playing this late in November signals a few milestones.
“We preached backed in August that the best day of football practice is Thanksgiving Day,” Vogt said. “If you’re practicing football then, you’re doing something pretty good.”
It’s been done just once before, in 2011, and followed with a loss to Cocoa in the Class 4A region finals.
So Dunbar (9-2), which has won its most games since 2012, will head into its contest against undefeated Tampa Jesuit (12-0) in the Region 5A-3 Finals on Friday hoping to amend past mistakes. This season marks the first time the Tigers have won two games in the postseason.
“Just being able to get here is a manifestation of the work they put in,” Vogt said. .
It will be the Tigers third appearance in the game in school history following outings in 2004 and 2011. Jesuit reached the region finals a season ago, losing to Bishop Moore 30-29 in two overtimes.
Dunbar arrives following its most impressive performance to date, a 49-3 win over district foe Immokalee, which marked the second straight game it held an opponent without a touchdown in the playoffs.
It also continued a theme of stellar defense from a team that’s quietly been one of the best units in Southwest Florida, and continued weeks of strong special teams play – the Tigers have produced six touchdowns off kickoffs, three off punts and blocked six punts.
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“We want either side of the ball to set the tone, but if the defense has to go out and set the tone for our brothers to go out and get crunked up, then that’s what we’re willing to do,” said Dunbar senior Jailyn Mays, who’s secured 13 sacks on the year.
If anything can best summarize Dunbar’s defense, it’s that the Tigers are consistent. They’ve held seven opponents to two touchdowns or less over nine wins and given up just 14 points on average.
“I just think the speed as a defense, whenever the ball goes to the outside, we have all 11 guys fly to the ball,” said senior Zach Lackman, who leads the team with 153 tackles. “We’re there in three seconds.”
But what the Tigers will find opposite themselves Friday night is a very similar group. Like Dunbar, Jesuit is a swarming, pursuit-hungry defense that’s racked up 65 sacks and given up less than nine points per game.
They’ll also find a prolific offense that scores over 38 points per game and features the eighth-leading rusher in Florida, running back Malik Davis, who’s totaled 2,038 yards and scored 26 times.
Vogt compares him to an NFL Hall-of-Famer.
“He’s a great cutback runner,” Vogt said. “He’s very smooth. It doesn’t look like he’s working really hard. He reminds me of Tony Dorsett.”
Vogt believes Dunbar will need to find a way to stop Jesuit from breaking away early with big plays.
“I think our defensive front has got to play,” Vogt said. “The strength of the team we’re playing is the offensive front. And our defensive front has to play. That to me is where the matchup is.”
Then again, Dunbar will need to find offense, too. Touchdowns haven’t always been so easy to diagram. The Tigers find the end zone on average a little over three scores per game.
And Dunbar is still just a few weeks off a lackluster 31-0 loss to Fort Myers, which saw the team give up fumbles in bad spots and turn over the ball in key situations.
A week later, the defense kept the Tigers in their region quarterfinal game against Bradenton Southeast, despite similar offensive struggles.
It’s why Vogt decided to go with senior Tariq Thomas at quarterback last Friday. The senior, who at times has played cornerback, safety, on special teams and at wide receiver, stepped into the pocket and did what he knew best.
“I’ve been running the option since Pop Warner,” Thomas said. “I’ve been doing the option all my life really, so it comes really easy.”
But it was Thomas’ ability to throw the long ball – he found freshman Seneca Milledge for two long touchdown score – that opened up the Tigers’ offense.
Ultimately, Dunbar will need to find a balance when it arrives in Tampa, much like it did last week against Immokalee.
“Our offense found a rhythm early, which gave them a lot of confidence going in,” Lackman said. “And then our defense played great again. It’s a combination of having the ball a lot and our defense being in rhythm.