Monday, December 9, 2019
Lynn Ramsey - Florida Catholic
Photography: LYNN RAMSEY | FC
TALLAHASSEE | When Thaddius Franklin carried Chaminade-Madonna to last year’s Class 3A state football final game, a broken left collarbone sidelined him. This year, few could stop him.
The junior running back made his impact felt in a huge way Dec. 6, running for a state-finals-record 333 yards on 47 carries and five touchdowns to help the Lions beat Tallahassee Florida High 35-20 in this year’s Class 3A football final at Gene Cox Stadium. The victory gave the Lions their third consecutive state title and fifth overall.
“(Franklin) said, ‘Coach, I’m going to run my heart out for this one,’” Chaminade-Madonna coach Dameon Jones said. “He carried us all year, and it was no different from this game. Our offensive line showed their hearts for him, and he was able to grab the record.”
Franklin finished his junior season with 2,282 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns. He now has 4,379 career yards.
The Lions faced a Florida High team playing a de-facto home game 4 miles from its campus. Even though Chaminade-Madonna was the official home team, organizers put the Seminoles on the home sideline, correctly anticipating a much larger crowd. Florida High fans packed their side. Despite a 468-mile, nearly 7-hour trip, Chaminade-Madonna fans also packed their side.
But a side drama began unfolding when Franklin finished the first half with 223 rushing yards. Would Franklin break the state-finals record of 328 yards set by Frostproof’s Travis Henry in a 67-30 Class 3A state-final loss to Lake Butler Union County?
EVERY YARD COUNTS
Unlike Henry’s success in a blowout loss, the Lions needed every yard of Franklin’s performance to hold off a high-powered Florida High offense. Florida High senior quarterback Willie Taggart Jr, son of former Florida State University coach Willie Taggart and a player who’s received several Division I offers, completed 9 of 15 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns. Taggart also provided a decoy for Alfred Menjor, who ended up with 61 yards rushing and one touchdown.
Franklin took the crowd out of the game early by scoring on the Lions’ first two drives on 4-yard and 3-yard runs. Franklin’s 1-yard run put the Lions up 21-7 at the half, and his 14-yard touchdown put Chaminade-Madonna up 28-7 through three quarters.
The Lions’ defense also played silencer through the first three quarters. Outside of Taggart’s 80-yard touchdown pass on a sideline go route to Ahmari Harvey, the Seminoles struggled. Quadric Bullard stopped Taggart two yards short on a fourth-down play in the first quarter. Franklin scampered 65-yards to set up his 1-yard touchdown run and the 21-7 lead. Jordan Lynch hurried Taggart into a third-down incompletion in the second quarter to force a punt. Jamaal Johnson, who led the Lions defense with nine tackles, teamed with Kenyatta Jackson to sack Taggart and force another punt.
“He was pretty good,” said Johnson about Taggart. “I trusted in my keys and did what I had to do. I stopped the run, so he went to the other side. My peers stepped up and had my back.”
The dominance continued into the third quarter, when Bullard forced a fumble and Brian Dilworth recovered to set up another Franklin touchdown. Allan Haye erased a Lions fumbled punt by making another fourth-down stop of Florida High’s Emory Layerd.
TIME TO SNUFF OUT A RALLY
The Seminoles, however, awakened their home crowd early in the fourth quarter when Taggart found receiver George Henderson on an out route for a 14-yard touchdown, cutting the Lions’ lead to 28-14.
A short Lions punt gave the Seminoles possession at the Chaminade-Madonna 36. A pass-interference penalty erased a Lions third-down stop, and Layerd ran to the Lions 3, eventually setting up Menjor’s 1-yard run. However, the extra-point kick bounced off the left upright, leaving the Lions with a tenuous 28-20 lead with 8:31 left.
Franklin erased all worry on the next drive. After quarterback Brady Kelly started the drive with a 13-yard completion to Josh Jenkins, the Lions turned to Franklin. He delivered, running the next seven plays to steal time away from a potential Florida High comeback. When he capped that drive with a 5-yard touchdown run, he sapped most of Florida High’s hopes of a miracle comeback. Two plays later, Charles Williams intercepted Taggart for the second time to steal the last vestiges of hope.
“The first interception I got lucky,” Williams said. “The second one was all me.”
A RECORD FALLS
At that point, the only remaining question became whether Franklin would break Henry’s record. Two plays into the next drive, Franklin ran for 10 yards to pass Henry. After that, the Lions gave their subs some game time on a state-championship field.
“It wasn’t a goal, but it happened,” Franklin said. “I have to give thanks to my offensive line and coaches.”
Senior left tackle Joseph Habinowski lauded a game plan that utilized the Lions’ size advantage. But he also lauded Franklin.
“He’s amazing,” Habinowski said. “He doesn’t go down on first contact. He keeps going. He’s a great running back.”
As the Lions found out this year, last year’s subs tend to become this year’s playmakers. While the Lions returned a healthy Franklin, Chaminade-Madonna had to replace most of their skill-position stars. The Lions’ top three tacklers from last year graduated, while their next two transferred to Miami Central.
Chaminade-Madonna turned to the familiar crucible of a tough schedule to form a team that finished 12-2. The Lions played — and beat — opponents from several bigger schools.
“That schedule is tremendous in preparing us for games like this,” Jones said. “(The state final) is a toughie. If we don’t play those games during the season, I don’t know if we win this ballgame tonight.”
Weaknesses find light in tough schedules. Chaminade-Madonna players turned to the week between a 21-0 loss to Class 8A region finalist Vero Beach on Oct. 18 and their 27-7 rout of 7A finalist Miami Central as the turning point to the season.
Williams talked about becoming family in that week. Johnson said the Lions were rough in communication in practice, but the Vero Beach loss re-sharpened their focus.
Franklin said it was about relying on the coaches more. “We started listening to our coaches more,” Franklin said. “We were doing our own thing. Once we started getting with the program, we could be unbeatable.”
After beating Miami Central, the Lions shut out their next three opponents in huge routs. That prepared the Lions to rout Clearwater Central Catholic 28-7 in the state semifinals before clinching their third consecutive title.
A FOURTH STRAIGHT TITLE?
Next year’s team will also have several holes to fill. While they are scheduled to return five of their six skill-position starters, they must fill the loss of four seniors on the offensive line. The defense must also fill three spots being vacated by seniors.
But Jones said the Lions already know the way. “South Florida grind,” he said. “It’s back to work.”
Williams said to expect a lot of Franklin running next year.
“We believe in Thaddius,” Williams said. “We’ve believed in Thaddius the whole year, and he hasn’t let us down yet.”