ORLANDO — This year’s Plant football team didn’t possess the five-star recruits or the record-breaking passing game of years past.
These Panthers made their fourth straight state title game appearance devoid of the star power of their predecessors.
And because of that, this squad might go down as the best title team of the bunch.
A Plant team that played the role of underdog perfectly all season — losing a pair of All-Americans from last year’s 6A state final team, looking overwhelmed in the preseason loss to Miami Columbus and overmatched against local rival Armwood — slayed its greatest giant in Saturday’s Class 8A state title game.
Facing the nation’s No. 3-ranked team, the Panthers pounced early on Broward County power Miramar, then held off a furious second-half rally to claim their fourth state title in six years with a 31-20 victory at the Citrus Bowl.
“We won the state championship when no one thought we could and we did it together; that’s the best part,” senior quarterback James Few said. “We’re so happy that we got to spend this much time with each other, that our season didn’t end short. To even get to this game was enough for us, but to win it is the icing on the cake.”
The Panthers saw a 17-point halftime lead all but vanish. Miramar scored two touchdowns on deep pass plays 24 seconds apart in the third quarter. Plant turned the ball over twice on fumbles, including one 2 yards from the end zone, in the second half.
Another December failure was close, but the Panthers defense rose to the occasion in the end. Senior linebacker Tate Rogers recovered a Miramar fumble in the end zone for a touchdown with 6:07 to play.
Junior defensive end Mitchell Wright (seven tackles, 1 ½ sacks, one QB hurry) lunged at Miramar quarterback Camren Hudge as he rolled out in the back of the end zone, forcing the fumble.
“We knew we had to make a big play because they were smelling it,” Rogers said. “And we had to make it right away.”
That play — which came two plays after Antonio Crawford’s fumble as he turned the corner toward the end zone at the 2-yard line with Plant clinging to a three-point lead — provided a much-needed swing for the Panthers (14-1).
“It just shows how much of a bond we have,” Crawford said. “Everyone came up to me and picked me up. They’re all my brothers. They told me, ‘We didn’t get this far for nothing.’ ”
The Panthers ran for 254 yards against a Miramar’s vaunted “Dark Side” defense that allowed just 7.7 points a game this season, had three shutouts and had never allowed more than 20 points in one game. Five-foot-six junior tailback Wesley Bullock led the Panthers with 124 yards and one touchdown on 26 rushes
“I told our seniors (Friday), ‘I’m going to work my butt off to help y’all get (your) rings,’ ” Bullock said. “We got them and now we’re already thinking about next year.”
Plant’s defense was equally effective, holding the Patriots to 145 yards of total offense and minus-4 yards rushing.
The game wasn’t pretty — the teams combined for 15 first-half penalties and 28 overall — and almost became very ugly late in the second half. Hudge threw for long touchdowns on back-to-back drives, hitting Malcolm Lewis with a perfectly-placed 31-yard touchdown pass.
The Patriots then capitalized on a Bullock fumble, with Hudge hitting Tanares Robinson from 27 yards out — with Plant linebacker Mike Tate’s hands also on the ball as the two fell into the end zone. The touchdown made the score 24-20.
It was a huge difference from the first half, when Plant found holes in Miramar’s defense, piercing the Patriots with a ground game that tallied 141 yards going into the half.
Bullock who lifted the Panthers early, ran for 56 yards on four carries on the game’s opening drive and put Plant up 7-0 on a 21-yard touchdown run just 2:15 into the game.
And the likely Ivy League-bound Few, known more as a pocket passer, completed just five passes but ran for a career-high 57 yards and one score. Four of his 11 carries were for first downs.
“That kid is just an unbelievable leader; all of our players responded to him immediately without him even trying, that’s who he is,” coach Robert Weiner said. “People thought, ‘Okay, what happened to the great Plant quarterback line?’ Well, you saw what happened tonight.”