For Osceola Head Coach Eric Pinellas the path to the Final Four is simple. Contain Vero Beach star wide receiver Vandrevious Jacobs on defense and finish drives in the end zone on offense.
But while the path may be simple, it will not be easy as the second-seeded Kowboys (9-3) meet the top-seeded Indians (11-1) in a Suburban 4, Region 3 Final at 7:30 p.m. Friday night at the Vero Beach Citrus Bowl.
“I’ll be honest, I’m glad they don’t run a single wing offense,” Pinellas said of his opponent after Osceola narrowly escaped upset losses in the first two rounds of the playoffs against single wing teams DeLand (30-28) and Treasure Coast (10-7). “But we have no delusions that this is going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination. Vero has a very capable offense, backed by a smallish but athletic defense that makes plays. “With few exceptions, every game is a dogfight at this point and we’re expecting another one on Friday.”
One might think Osceola would have an advantage after Vero Beach star quarterback Tyler Aronson was lost for the season with a broken thumb on his throwing hand in a Nov. 21 loss to Martin County. But backups Jake Whitley and Efrem White have filled in admirably – leading the Indians to a district-clinching win over Treasure Coast (10-7 in overtime) as well as playoff wins over Harmony (24-14) and Melbourne (26-7).
Still it is Jacobs, an FSU pledge and one of the top receivers in the state, who concerns Pinellas the most.
The senior has 84 receptions for 1352 yards and 19 touchdowns – despite playing the last three-and-a-half games without his quarterback. “We need to account for him on every snap, because he has the ability to score from anywhere on the field,” Pinellas said. “He’s one of those players who will always going to get his stats, the important thing will be to not give up the big plays and get him on the ground after he catches it.”
Although they do not run the ball much, Vero can be effective on the ground. Led by Quincy Rodgers (85 carries, 605 yards, 5 touchdowns), the Indians are averaging five yards a carry and have scored 23 rushing touchdowns this season.
Not as big defensively as they have been in the past, Vero is very quick and athletic on that side of the ball. Defensive linemen Kenzi Brown (55 tackles, 15 For Loss) and Matt Bacon (15 TFL, 4.5 quarterback sacks) are having big years; as is linebacker Keyshawn Campbell (22.5 TFL, 6.0 sacks).
“They really do a nice job of running stunts and blitzes and that usually frees up someone to make a big play,” Pinellas said. “We must be able to run the ball effectively and if we can do that, we can slow their pass rush and open things up.”
Osceola had a difficult time running the ball last week against Treasure Coast’s big defensive line. Still sophomore Taevion Swint is averaging more than 113 yards per game and leads the Kowboys with 19 rushing touchdowns.
If Swint and the Kowboy offensive line can get the running game moving, it should open things up for the passing game and wide receivers Ja’Keem Jackson, TJ Massey and senior Bo Mascoe – a defensive back that has been used extensively on offense during the playoffs.
On the down side, Osceola will be without senior standout nose tackle Elijah Palermo, who injured his shoulder in the Treasure Coast loss. “He’s going to be tough to replace, but we always tell our kids, next man up needs to be ready,” Pinellas said. “After Elijah got hurt, Jaquille Knox and Josh Alamo – a pair of sophomores – came in and did the job for us. We have a lot of confidence in those guys.”
In addition to stopping Jacobs and getting the running game going, he said there was one other big key to an Osceola win. “We need to start finishing our drives in the end zone, turning the ball over on downs or kicking field goals will not cut it,” Pinellas said.
The winner of the game will move on the Final Four, but an opponent will not be determined until after all regional games are played. “They are looking for the best matchup possible for the state championship game,” Pinellas said. “So they will reseed after all the regional games are played.”
Osceola last appeared in a regional championship game in the Covid shortened season of 2020, beating Newsome on the road in the regional final (17-7) before defeating Palmetto in the semis (9-3) before losing in the state championship to Seminole (38-0). That was also the last year the Kowboys faced Vero Beach, dropping a 34-7 regular season road game to the Indians.