Lightning struck early in often Saturday night, as the Plant Panthers traveled north to take on the Wharton Wildcats in a Class 8A, District 6 showdown. Originally scheduled for Friday night, the game was rescheduled for Saturday night at 6:00. At 6:01, lightning struck for the first time when senior running back Wes Bullock returned the opening kickoff of the game 82 yards for a touchdown. And lightning struck again moments later on Wharton’s first play from scrimmage. Senior safety Paris Bostick met Wharton receiver DeAndre Washington an instant after Washington hauled in a short pass and promptly separated the ball from the player. Cornerback Bernard Rogers was Johnny-on-the-spot — scooping up the fumble and returning it 20 yards for a touchdown. Senior kicker William Few converted both extra points for the Panthers and before you could say “weather delay,” Plant had a 14 – 0 lead.
The game then settled down into a defensive struggle, as the two teams traded a pair of possessions and punts. Midway through the opening quarter, Wharton took possession on its own 37-yard line. The Wildcats flipped the field around with a second-down screen pass from 2014 quarterback Chase Litton that covered more than 30 yards. On the ensuing play, Litton scrambled for nine yards before being chased out of bounds. A short run up the middle gave the Wildcats another first down. Litton then missed on three straight passes before connecting with receiver Keith Hopkins on a fourth down 30-yard touchdown pass. Hopkins converted the extra point and Wharton had the cut the lead in half, 14 – 7.
Once again, the teams traded punts and possessions as the game moved into the second quarter; neither team could sustain a drive. A nice run here, a completed pass there, drives assisted or thwarted by a penalty — but the next few possessions for both teams all ended with punts. With 1:36 remaining in the first half, Wharton had the ball at the Plant 35-yard line. Four plays (and three incompletions) later, Wharton turned the ball over on downs and that’s exactly where Plant had the ball with just under a minute left in the half. Plant junior quarterback Colby Brown, filling in for the injured Aaron Banks, rolled out to his right and threw the ball back to Bullock, who rambled 27 yards down to the Wildcat 38. Brown then showed some running prowess of his own on the next play, picking up 13 yards. Bullock’s draw took the ball down to the 11-yard line. Following a couple of incompletions, and with only three seconds showing on the clock, Few banged home a 27-yard field goal to give the Panthers a 17 – 7 halftime lead.
And then lightning struck again. And again. And again. Only this time it was real and it was all around the Wharton campus. And it stayed around for quite some time. The traditional 15-20 minute halftime turned into a weather delay of almost 3 hours as strong thunderstorms moved slowly through the New Tampa area. Play resumed shortly after 10:00 when Wharton’s Keith Hopkins returned the opening kickoff of the second half out to the Wildcat 30 yard line. When the drive stalled, Litton got off his best punt of the night, and Vernon Hargreaves III made a terrific open-field tackle of the Plant returner to pin the Panthers at their own 5.
Much like the first half, the two teams were not able to sustain drives and one possession after another ended with a punt. The only exception was when senior safety/linebacker Reeves Rogers picked off a deflected Litton pass. However, the Panthers were not able to convert the turnover into points and the third quarter ended with the same score that it began — 17 – 7, Plant.
Plant’s first possession of the fourth quarter began on its own 37 yard line. Nice runs by Brown and Bullock were offset by penalties against the Panthers. But, Plant was also able to pick up some big chunks of yardage through the air. Brown hit senior fullback James Helms on a 25-yard catch and run early in the drive and then hit junior receiver Fletcher Barnes for 15 more yards on a key third down to keep the drive alive. But, when the drive finally stalled, Few walked on to the slick grass and nailed a 45-yard field goal to give Plant a 20 – 7 lead.
A nice return of the ensuing kickoff by Deon Sampson, with some penalty yards tacked on, put the Wildcats in business in Plant territory. Under pressure from the Panther defense, Litton failed to connect on four straight passes and Wharton turned the ball over on downs. Plant used a fake punt (Andrew Beck’s short run up the middle) and some nice runs by sophomore Patrick Brooks to keep the chains moving and burn precious time off the clock. With time running down, Brown connected with junior H-back Brenden Bomar on a 18-yard scoring strike for the final points of the night.
Plant was led by Wes Bullock (a 100-yard rushing night) and Colby Brown (completing just over half his passes for over 100 yards), on the offensive side, by Mitchell Wright and Reeves Rogers on the defensive side and by Few and punter Tripp Lawson on special teams. Wharton was led on defense by linebacker Rocky Enos and by Vernon Hargreaves, who played as much linebacker as defensive back (when he wasn’t also playing receiver on offense). The Plant defense pressured quarterback Litton into a subpar night, as the Wildcat junior struggled to complete a fourth of his passes.
Plant moves to 1 – 0 in district play, while Wharton falls to 0 – 1.