Saturday night wasn’t alright for the Plant City Raiders, though they did fight to the end of their game with Gaither.
The Raiders’ last-minute rally didn’t pan out as planned and Sept. 7 ended with a 28-23 win for the visiting Cowboys. The loss gives Plant City a 1-2 record before district play starts up next week.
Plant City, hoping to halt the hype surrounding Gaither, received the ball to start the game but went three and out quickly. The Cowboys’ air raid offense was even quicker to strike, as Deveon Knighton took a Tony Bartalo pass roughly 50 yards for a touchdown on the Cowboys’ first offensive snap of the game.
That was one of only three possessions in which Gaither didn’t commit a penalty. The third penalty-free possession was the last one of the game, and all that happened was a kneel to run out the last few seconds of the game clock. The Cowboys were flagged a whopping 22 times against Plant City.
All those setbacks couldn’t derail the high-powered Gaither offense, though. The Cowboys’ second drive of the first quarter bled into the start of the second and ended with Jeff Duclos catching a 13-yard pass in the end zone to put Gaither ahead, 14-0, early in the quarter.
Plant City decided to move Mario Williams outside to mix things up and perhaps spark the offense, and that paid off within two snaps as he made a 24-yard catch to bring the Raiders into Gaither territory for the first time. Though PCHS wouldn’t score on that possession, its next one was a success: a Makenzie Kennedy interception was negated by a defensive pass interference call on Gaither, which gave the Raiders a first down at Gaither’s 20-yard line and led to a 20-yard touchdown catch for Reagan Ealy.
The Raiders’ defense came up big on Gaither’s next drive (aided by a slew of penalties, but still). Plant City forced a turnover on downs to get the ball at Gaither’s 32, but the ensuing PCHS drive was also killed by several penalties.
Plant City got the ball back after the half with a gutsy onside kick that put the home team on Gaither’s 49-yard line to start the third quarter. The Raiders drove as far as Gaither’s 19-yard line, but were forced backward in their next three snaps and kicker Chris Rodriguez had to nail a 42-yard attempt to put the Raiders within four points, now facing a 14-10 deficit.
A squib kick put Gaither at its own 20-yard line to start the next drive, and Plant City nearly picked Bartalo off on second down. But the Raiders were flagged for defensive pass interference, giving Gaither a fresh set of downs. Plant City nearly forced a three-and-out afterward, but a taunting penalty following a big pass breakup in the end zone kept the drive alive. The Cowboys drove to Plant City’s 10-yard line and Bartalo served up another touchdown pass to put Gaither ahead, 21-10.
The last drive of the quarter saw the Raiders get to Gaither’s 15-yard line thanks to a clutch catch by Ealy, then Zamir’ Knighten brought the Raiders to Gaither’s 5-yard line shortly after the third quarter became the fourth quarter. Plant City inched closer and closer to the goal line until, with 10:11 left in the game, Kennedy snuck through the trenches and scored on a keeper. Plant City’s two-point attempt was no good, however, so the Raiders found themselves facing a 21-16 deficit.
Gaither got the ball back at its own 28-yard line and needed less than two game minutes to score. After marching to their own 39-yard line with just over 8:30 left in the game, Bartalo found a man wide open for an easy catch and race to the end zone. Though the Cowboys picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty shortly after getting a 28-16 lead, they got the ball right back by jumping a route on a Kennedy pass intended for Williams and snagging an interception with 8:15 to go. The Cowboys didn’t score on the drive, but they did bleed the clock down from 8:15 to 1:26 before giving Plant City the ball back on downs at the Raiders’ own 23-yard line.
After a five-yard pickup by Knighten, Ealy caught a 24-yard pass to give the Raiders a first down in Cowboys territory. Williams made back-to-back catches of eight and 35 yards, respectively, to get Plant City to Gaither’s 5-yard line with 23 seconds left in the game. Knighten found an opening on third down to put the Raiders within one score with nine seconds left, but Gaither recovered the short kickoff and was able to put the game away before the Raiders could force a fumble.
In other area action, Durant will play at Blake at 7 p.m. Monday and Strawberry Crest had a bye week.