The clock and the season were winding down on the Plant Panthers Friday night. The 8A District 6 Champions had let a 10-point first half lead slip away. Trailing visiting Dr. Phillips by a touchdown with just under 4:00 to play, and deep in their own territory, Plant head coach Robert Weiner opted to punt the ball, hoping the defense could get the ball back with enough time on the clock. Weiner’s decision paid off, as the Plant defense forced a possession from the visitors that was short in both distance and duration. Ricky Buckner’s punt was mishandled by the Plant return man, but teammate Cam Winter came up with the ball, giving Plant less than three minutes to travel 80 yards.
Two incomplete passes were followed by two completions, but Plant was flagged for penalties on both completions. An illegal man downfield call, after a screen play blew up, followed by a holding penalty, backed Plant up to its own 3 yard line where they faced third down and 28 yards to go. And then it happened. The second coming of the immaculate reception (Franco Harris and the Steelers did wear Black and Gold, didn’t they?). Auburn /Georgia revisited. Under heavy pressure, Plant quarterback Colby Brown, who ended the night 14-20 for 207 yards, threw a pass downfield that seemingly had interception written all over it. But, somehow the ball deflected off a pair of Dr. Phillips defensive backs and into the waiting hands of Plant senior Fletcher Barnes. By the time Barnes was hauled down some 55 yards from where the play began, Plant had crossed mid-field and into Dr. Philips territory. There was still work left to be done, but a sense of confidence and destiny seemed to settle over the home team.
Brown then let loose a high bullet over the middle that Winter defied gravity to pull down. An 11-yard jaunt by junior Patrick Brooks, and a face mask penalty that seemed to draw a flag from every referee on the field, set Plant up inside the Dr. Phillips ten yard line. With under 40 seconds remaining on the clock, Brown rolled right, extended the play and ultimately threw back across the field to an open Alex Jackson in the back left corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Clarke Miller’s extra point tied the score 17-17 with 33 seconds showing on the game clock.
A deep kickoff and a short return pinned Dr. Phillips deep, where the guests smartly decided to run out the clock and take their chances in overtime. Dr. Phillips won the overtime coin toss and wisely elected to start out on defense. Plant struck first behind an 8 yard run and a two yard plunge into the end zone from Brooks. Brooks finished the night with 93 yards on 16 carries. Miller’s PAT was good and Plant had regained the lead, 24-17.
Dr. Phillips then took their turn from the ten yard line. On their first play, a pass slipped through the outstretched fingertips of sophomore Alvin Bryant at the goal line. Deionte Gaines, running out of a wildcat formation that had yielded positive results for DP, then took matters into his own hands — running around left end for five yards and then around right end for five more and a Dr. Phillips touchdown. Needing only a single point to tie the game, Dr. Phillips chose to go for two points and the win. An offside penalty against Plant gave DP an even better chance. Plant called time out. Defensive coordinator John Few gathered his defense around him and spelled it out for his troops. “If they get the two yards, they win. If we stop them, we win.” It was just that simple. Plant then gambled that Dr. Phillips would keep the ball in the hands of Gaines. The gamble paid off when Plant senior safety Bernard Rogers was able to penetrate and stop Gaines short of the goal line. Final score: 24-23, Plant. The celebration began for Plant and equally as fast, disappointment set in Dr. Phillips, who lost their first and only game of the season.
The game certainly didn’t begin looking like it would end in overtime. The boys from South Tampa started out well. Plant took the opening kickoff and moved the ball down the field, with Brooks picking up over 30 yards on the drive. Facing a 4th down on the visitor’s 2 yard line, Plant did risk coming away without points. Miller’s 27 yard field goal gave the hometown Panthers a 3-0 lead over the visiting Panthers from Orlando. Dr. Phillips moved the ball on its opening drive, and took several minutes off the clock, before their drive stalled and they were forced to punt. A couple of possessions later, Alexander Jackson punctuated a nice Plant drive with a 44 yard touchdown run, sweeping around left end.
The Plant defense continued to play well throughout the first half, holding a potent Dr. Phillips offense to precious few yards — at least until the final 30 seconds of the half. Facing a 3rd and 7 from their own 18 yard line, Gaines did some sweeping of his own. Gaines broke several tackles on his way to an 82 yard touchdown run to cut Plant’s lead to 10-7 at halftime.
Dr. Phillips carried the momentum back out onto the field with them to start the second half, driving from one 20 yard line to the other. This drive ended with a 40 yard field goal from Ricky Bucker to knot the score at 10-10. On their next possession, Dr. Phillips junior quarterback Rudy Norwood hit the omnipresent Gaines with a 29-yard scoring strike, giving the visitors their first lead of the game, 17-10.
It looked like things might slip away for the Tampa team, as Plant alternated a couple of turnovers – a fumble and an interception on a screen pass that tipped off the hands of a receiver – with a couple of turnover on downs, as the game moved from the third quarter into the fourth. But the defense continued to play at a high level, led by linebackers Andrew Beck, Kendall Wichman and Bernard Rogers, ultimately giving Plant an opportunity to pull out the victory from the clutches of defeat.
Dr. Phillips ends its season with a 12-1 record, while Plant moves to 11-1-1. More importantly, the win gives Plant the opportunity to continue playing football this season. The Panthers from Plant travel across the state next Friday for a showdown with Fort Pierce Central, 17-15 winners over Bradenton Manatee.
– Robert Barnes