INVERNESS — Citrus kept its unbeaten season intact with a “defining” 7-3 win against Hernando on Friday night, rallying in the fourth quarter and stopping two opposing drives late.
With homecoming festivities highlighting the evening and a season after the Hurricanes (8-0) went on the road and ruined the same occasion for the Leopards (3-5), the ’Canes expected a fight. They got just that and, coupled with their poorest offensive night of the season, fought all night for the win.
It took some ill-timed Leopard penalties and a deceptive play by the Hurricanes, with running back TJ Weems scoring a 5-yard touchdown on a counter run with 7:14 left in the game for the winner.
Head coach Robert O’Brien told his players afterward that “These are the kind of wins that define a team.”
While the ’Canes started out sluggish — just 32 offensive yards heading into halftime — they made just enough adjustments and found a way to pull out the victory.
“I said it earlier in the week; I don’t think their record is indicative of who they are. They played really tough,” O’Brien said of the Leopards. “Our defense really stepped up”
The Hurricanes walked into the Citrus Bowl averaging 38 points a contest, but quickly realized Friday they weren’t in for a typical game. They punted their first four drives, failing to covert points twice after getting decent field position off punts.
The Leopards put together an eight-play drive late in the first half, with Anthony Talpa just getting enough on a 38-yard field goal attempt to put his team up 3-0 with :20 left before halftime. At that point, the ’Canes had only converted two first downs on 32 total yards of offense.
Citrus retook the field after halftime facing the possibility of its first loss of the season, and knowing the opening kickoff was going to the Leopards. After a false start and two big tackles by the Hurricanes, the Leopards were forced to punt.
While the ’Canes were forced to punt the ensuing drive, their defense once again made big plays to force the Leopards to punt their next drive. That set up the definitive drive for the home team.
Citrus received the ball on its 42-yard line, with quarterback Connor Bishop completing three passes and running back Zaire Wilcox making several critical runs for first downs. On 4th and 7 from the Leopards’ 25-yard line, Bishop threw a pass toward the end zone that was incomplete, but the Leopards were flagged for pass interference, giving the ’Canes an automatic first down.
Three plays later, Weems ran the ball in on a flip play, with kicker Colin Scozzafava missing two extra point attempts before making the third after the defense was whistled for consecutive penalties.
The Hurricanes were not out of trouble yet, with the defense needing to make two more defensive stops, ending with Mikey Gatto’s interception with seconds left and the Leopards within striking distance of the end zone.
O’Brien credited the atmosphere the school put together for the homecoming, with a loud band and fans behind them, with providing momentum.
“That was huge for our defense to kind of put the clamps on them and not let them make any plays that were going to end the game right then and there,” he finished.
Bishop ended the night completing 7 of 8 passes for 34 yards, with Wilcox running 15 times for 51 yards. Geoff Banning had six tackles on defense.
Opposing quarterback Maurice Holland completed 4 of 13 passes for 57 yards, and ran the ball 11 times for 53 yards.
Gatto said he was proud of his team for coming together, and with two more regular season games — at home against Nature Coast and at Crystal River — he added, “We’ve got a lot of guys banged up, so we’ve got to kind of sneak by with a W.”