The Plant Panthers met up with the Orlando Freedom Patriots at Dad’s Stadium Friday night for a Class 8A – Region 2 quarterfinal football game and a track meet broke out. Fortunately, for Plant, it turned out to be a relay race. After rushing for most of his 113 yards in the first half, Plant senior running back Wes Bullock passed off the baton to sophomore Patrick Brooks in the second half and Brooks kicked it into high gear with 122 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns. Brooks also hauled in a 7-yard TD pass from senior Aaron Banks and the Panthers earned what they hope will be their first of two trips to Orlando in this post-season with a 48 – 31 victory.
Freedom’s return of the opening kickoff set the tone for the night. Senior receiver and USF verbal commit Jeff Badet returned the opening kickoff out to the Freedom 43 yard line. The Patriots capped off a 13 play drive with a 22 yard field goal to take an early 3 – 0 lead. It looked like it might be a long night for the Panthers when the exchange from Banks to Bullock on Plant’s first play from scrimmage ended up on the turf and in the hands of a Patriot defender. Plant’s defense stiffened, forcing Freedom into a punt situation. The snap got by the punter and Plant started its next drive on the Patriot 29 yard line. Plant lost 2 yards on the drive, but senior kicker William Few refused to let the scoring opportunity slip away by nailing a 48-yard field goal to knot the score at 3.
The Panthers got good field position moments later when Freedom fumbled on its next possession. Banks completed back-to-back passes to Jordan Reed and Cam Winter to set up a 10-yard TD run by Banks and give Plant a 10 – 3 lead as the first quarter came to a close. The two teams exchanged possessions and punts before Freedom began a drive at the Plant 47 yard line. On fourth down and short, Badet lined up in the wildcat formation, took the snap and raced 37 yards down to the one yard line, where quarterback Jimmy Kealy snuck in to tie the score again, this time at 10.
A 35-yard run from Bullock on Plant’s next possession was not enough to put more points on the board for Plant. With less than 4 minutes to play in the half, the fireworks began. Badet, once again lining up in the Wildcat formation, ran around left end and down the visitor’s sideline for a 67-yard touchdown and a 17 – 10 lead for the Pats. Following a short kickoff (both teams struggled with trying to decide whether or not to kick short to avoid the chance of a long return), and a pair of Bullock runs totaling 23 yards, the Panthers found the end zone again. Banks scrambled and just when it appeared that he would caught, he jumped up ala Tim Tebow and fired a pass to Bullock, who rambled in for a 37-yard touchdown. Few’s extra point evened the race once again with just over 2 minutes remaining in the first half.
Freedom started its next drive on its own 20 yard line and proceeded to lose 4 yards over the next three plays. With about a minute to play in the half, Freedom gambled and lost big when the Patriots’ fake punt was sniffed out and stuffed by the Panther defense. A bubble screen to senior receiver John Rutledge set up a 2-yard run from Bullock and allowed the Panthers to take a 24 – 17 lead into half time. A Paris Bostick interception (with a 40-yard return) on the final play of the opening half preserved the lead.
The Panthers came out strong in the second half, moving the ball down the field on a series of runs and passes, but ultimately had to settle for a 24-yard field goal from Few.
The two teams exchanged possessions before Freedom took over on its 29. Plant’s Reeves Rogers picked off a Kealy pass and returned it to the Patriot 17 yard line. From there, Brooks went to work, sprinting to pay dirt on the first play of the drive. With a 34 – 17 lead, it looked like Plant might be able to cruise the rest of the way. However, the Patriots would have none of that.
After a short kick off and a few short runs, Kealy found Badet sprinting down the middle of the field and connected on a 45-yard scoring strike to cut the lead to 10 points again. Brooks responded with a 40-yard gallop of his own to close out the scoring in the 3rd quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Panthers seemingly had stopped the Patriots drive when Cameron Staley made a diving tackle to stop a QB draw before it had a chance to develop into a big play. However, a fumbled punt was recovered by Freedom on the Plant 33 yard line. Once again, the Panther defense stiffened and Freedom turned the ball over on downs. A three-and-out led to a Plant punt that gave the Pats life at their own 32 yard line, ultimately setting up a 41-yard TD run by Freedom’s Cortese.
Brooks led the Panthers down the field and got rewarded with a 7 yard TD reception to close out the scoring and set up a showdown between Plant and Orlando Dr. Phillips next Friday night in Orlando.
– Bob Barnes