By JOHN LEMBO
A clearer playoff picture, one team's great timing and another team's continuing ability to beat the most important teams on the schedule.
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The prep football season is down to its final three weeks, and so is Numbers Game, which takes a look back at a Week 8 full of big wins and a Week 9 packed with even bigger games.
The best part?
Even bigger games are on tap after that on Halloween. Yes, Halloween.
But let's put the costume-shopping on hold and let the counting commence.
Area team that officially clinched a playoff berth -- Cardinal Mooney. And the Cougars needed just one district game to do it, blowing by Out-of-Door Academy 64-0 on Friday in the Cougars' first Class 3A-District 6 game of the year. That's the pros and cons of playing in a three-team district: One win, and you lock up a postseason berth, but you occasionally have to wait a month until playing a district game. It was worth the wait for the Cougars, however, who host Fort Myers Bishop Verot on Halloween in a bonafide district championship game.
(Side note: I wonder if they'll have a trophy, which we never see in football because there is no district tournament and therefore, usually no true championship game. District football champs can be crowned anytime, anywhere depending on what is happening in a game played
in some other city. This is different, however -- win the game, win the district -- and win the trophy).
Palmetto's combined margin of victory in its two wins. The Tigers were probably hoping to have more than two victories heading into the back end of October, but who they have defeated is what is most important -- Palmetto's victories have come against Class 7A-District 10 foes North Port (21-0) and Lakewood Ranch (31-7), which is why the Tigers can seal their fifth-straight playoff appearance Friday with a win over Sarasota. If that happens, and Braden River defeats North Port, the Tigers and Pirates lock up both of District 10's playoff invites and will meet on Halloween in East Manatee County to decide a champ.
Consecutive district victories for Manatee, which erased a 15-point second-quarter deficit Friday to beat St. Petersburg and took sole possession of first place in Class 8A-District 7. Halloween plays a role in this segment of Numbers Game, too: The Hurricanes' last loss to a district foe was Oct. 31, 2008, in Venice. That also marked Manatee's last regular-season defeat against a Florida school as well as the last time the Canes failed to make the playoffs. (Its 2009 loss to Venice was erased when the Florida High School Athletic Association stripped the Indians of all of their wins that season.) Turning 21 is a milestone for anyone, the Hurricanes included: Stretch the streak to 21 on Halloween over host Palm Harbor University and Manatee wins its sixth straight title.
Teams that got at least one touchdown from its special teams unit Friday -- Cardinal Mooney, IMG Academy and Manatee. Chad Wilkins returned a punt 20 yards for the Cougars and IMG's Savion Smith continued his sparkling season by recovering a blocked punt in the end zone.
Jumar Gaskin also scored on a punt return for the Hurricanes.
Forced turnovers for Bayshore during its 17-14 win over Wauchula Hardee. It was the Bruins' first win of the year and it came at the perfect time, as it upped their 5A-District 13 record to 1-2 and knocked Hardee out of the playoff race. Arcadia DeSoto appreciated it -- Hardee's loss coupled with the Bulldogs' overtime win at Southeast allowed DeSoto to clinch the district championship. Bayshore will need to beat Booker on Friday and Southeast to drop its final two district games in order to nab the district's other playoff spot. But despite an 0-6 start, the Bruins are still in it.
John Lembo, Herald staff writer, can be reached at 941-745-7057. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLembo1878. Numbers Game appears Tuesday during the prep football season.