When the Venice football team met Manatee in the district championship, the game got away from them quickly.
Before they could blink, an early turnover and a monsoon-like rain had the Indians down, 13-0, to the Hurricanes.
Venice (7-4) couldn’t overcome that early deficit, turning the ball over three more times as they scored just one touchdown until the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, Manatee deployed a two-headed rushing attack of Napoleon Harris and Tyson Phelps, who ran for 273 yards and four touchdowns as they put hopes of a Venice comeback out of reach.
“We’ve got to do a better job of not hurting ourselves,” Venice coach John Peacock said. “I think losing the Manatee game really caused us to make some changes.
“It was like, ‘We can’t keep doing this over and over and expecting different results.’”
The notable changes the Indians have made — committing to Steffan Johnson as the starting quarterback, leaning on running back Shevie Pearce and having offensive lineman and FSU commit Thomas Shrader add defensive line work to his responsibilities — have resulted in two decisive wins for Venice through two rounds of the playoffs.
But regardless of what the Indians have done on the offensive side of the ball, their chances of beating the Hurricanes will likely come down to stopping Harris and Phelps.
In the playoffs, Manatee has stuck to the ground game. In a 35-7 win over Pinellas Park, the Hurricanes rushed 39 times for 234 yards and 3 TDs. In last week’s 31-28 win over Mitchell, they ran 36 times for 147 yards and 2 TDs.
“We have to stop the run game. That has to be a focal point,” Peacock said. “Last time we went in playing them, they hadn’t been really successful on the ground even playing a lesser opponent in Lakewood Ranch.
“We really thought they would toss the ball around the park. But they came in and did something totally different than what we expected. I think we’ll be a little bit more prepared to stop the run this time.”
Over the past two weeks, the Indians have shut down opposing rushing attacks. Though that’s not all due to the added presence of Shrader on the defensive line, it’s certainly been a boost for a young and inexperienced defensive front.
“I think I’ll help quite a bit,” the 6-foot-5, 280 pound senior said of playing defense. “I don’t know if it’ll be much, but I hope so. I feel like they needed a good defensive lineman and they came to me. I was glad to help.
“I feel like we were kind of getting pushed around a little bit too much last time we played Manatee. So with me being bigger than our other D-lineman, I think it’ll help us out.”
Along with an improved run defense, Venice will be hoping for a better performance from its new quarterback Steffan Johnson.
The run-first junior rushed 13 times for 4 yards and attempted only one pass in the loss to the Hurricanes as the Indians turned to Ryan Overstreet as they tried to come back through the passing game.
But with Johnson running for 529 yards over the past two weeks alone, there’s good reason to think Friday night will yield a different results
“Steffan at quarterback still has a lot more to give that we haven’t really had an opportunity to see because we’ve been so successful running the ball,” Peacock said. “But he can throw the ball. He puts the ball on the money.
“Obviously he’s a lot more comfortable now. He has the run game down and we’re able to tempo some teams with him. We started the game last time against them and we had six errors and three were by him. I don’t think we’ll have those issues this time.”