TAMPA -- Rarely do big games live up to the pre-game hype, but Plant and Robinson put on an electric display that did not disappoint the sold-out crowd at Jack Peters Field.
Robinson came in at 9-0 and was trying to cap the first perfect regular season for outgoing Coach Mike Depue, who is retiring from teaching and coaching at the end of the school year. South Tampa rival Plant came in at 8-1 and wanted to spoil the perfect season. The exciting game was decided in the waning minutes as Plant QB Aaron Banks found one more big play in him to give his team a close, hard-fought 26-24 win against a respected rival.
As they have done all year, the Knights started out fast behind dangerous QB Zain Gilmore and workhorse RB Martin Ruiz. The Knights marched 53 yards on a 10-play opening drive that saw them convert two 4th downs. The second fourth down conversion resulted in a 14-yard touchdown pass from Gilmore to TE Justin Madison. Plant blocked the extra point and the Knights led 6-0. Plant would answer back with 8-play 80-yard drive highlighted by a 44-yard pass from Banks to WR Tristan Cooper. The Knights denied Plant a touchdown but William Few made good on a 31-yard field goal.
Plant would take the lead in a wild second quarter that would hold until the half. A 71-yard drive that was highlighted with clutch plays by Banks (who threw for 201 yards and rushed for 102 yards on the night) and Cooper (5 catches for 115 yards on the night) ended in a 1-yard Wesley Bullock touchdown.
Robinson put together a lengthy drive of its own in response highlighted by a 42-yard run by Ruiz (124 rushing yards on 17 carries on the night). Unfortunately, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a false start killed the touchdown threat. The Knights could not convert a 33-yard field goal attempt.
The Panthers put together a methodical 80-yard drive to take a commanding 17-6 lead at the half - or so everyone thought. Bullock grinded out tough yards (29 carries for 130 yards in the game) and Banks again found Cooper for a big gain. The drive ended when Banks found TE Andrew Beck for a 2-yard touchdown with only 1:41 to play in the half
However, the Knights were not about to be embarrassed on their home turf and amazingly there would be two more scores before the half. Robinson started pinned at its own 17-ard line. Gilmore found Austin Eads for a quick 13 yards. Two plays later Gilmore showed his patented elusiveness and danced through the Plant defense for a 70-yard touchdown.
He then converted the 2-point try on a naked bootleg to his right to make it 17-14.
The drive only took 22 seconds. Plant had 1:13 left when in took over on its 38-yard line. A few plays into the drive Banks found Bullock for a 39-yard reception that put the ball on the Knights 10-yard line. William Few kicked the field goal as time expired to give Plant a 20-14 half time lead.
It appeared that the Plant offense would roll in the second half. On the first play of the 3rd quarter, Banks took off for a 64-yard run that put Plant in business on the Robinson 11. Plant stalled at the Robinson 6-yard line. Usually sure-footed William Few missed the short field goal attempt.
Robinson, inspired by dodging the bullet, went to work behind Gilmore and Ruiz.
Gilmore's 43 yard run gave the Knights a first and goal at the Plant 9. Plant was able to hold Robinson out of the end-zone but the Knights converted on a 25-yard field goal, cutting the lead to three - 20-17.
The Knights were able to switch field position and keep Plant in its own territory for the remainder of the quarter. Plant would not get past its own 20 for the remainder of the third as the Knights defense stiffened.
Robinson took control on the next drive, moving 55-yards for a score, all on the ground.
The hard- running Ruiz converted a short fourth down with a 14-yard run. His subsequent running, characterized by dragging Plant defenders for extra yards, set the Knights up with a first and goal at the Plant 1-yard line.
Gilmore capped off the drive with a short run and Robinson took a 24-20 lead with 8:41 remaining.
Despite the momentum clearly shifting, Banks and Bullock were not going down without a fight. The two accounted for all but 7 of the 80 yards consumed on the ensuing drive.
Bullock rushed for 38 yards on the drive and caught an 18-yard pass. Banks converted a key 3rd and 5 from the Robinson 21 with a 7 yard pass to the sliding Cooper. With less than 3 minutes to play, Plant found itself with a second down and 8 on the Robinson 12 yard line.
Banks scrambled to his right but could not find an open receiver. He then darted back to the center of the field and cut hard through traffic, avoiding no less than 5 defenders and breaking two tackles to get into the end-zone. The score came with 2:43 to play gave Plant a 26 to 24 lead. Usually reliable kicker Few hit the right crossbar and extra point was no good.
A field goal would win it for the Knights and would cap a perfect regular season. Gilmore ran for 3 yards on first down. He just missed a well covered receiver on second down. Third and fourth down saw him come under heavy pressure from the Plant defense and his passes fell to the turf.
Plant took over and ran out the clock with Bullock converting on 3rd and 1 to preserve the Plant victory.
As disappointing as a loss the game was for Depue and the Knights, both teams will enter the playoffs with high expectations. Many expect Robinson to make a serious challenge for the 5A title. Perennial contented Plant will also enter as one of the favorites in 8A.