TAMPA — The boys from the country came to town Friday night, and played like boys from the country play.
Tough. Hard. Physical.
By the end of Durant’s game against New Tampa’s previously undefeated Wharton, the Cougars felt they left their marks, on some of the Wildcat players and Hillsborough County as well.
It was 13-12, and it was ugly, but Durant’s victory definitely said something.
“It was a statement win,” said fullback Jamarlon Hamilton, one of many anonymous Cougars who appear to be taking some mighty big steps towards becoming well-known football players. Especially on the defensive side.
Safety Paxton Sims was all over the field, defensive back Terry Grimsley returned an interception for a touchdown, junior defensive end Donteill Perry sacked Wharton quarterback Chase Litton a few times and the Zach Attack — Whitney and Hoffman with their pass rushing from the linebacker position and Hooper with two huge special teams plays — was able to overcome Wharton’s more famous football team.
“Some people had us coming out here and getting killed,” said Sims, a junior. “They have a bunch of stars over there and we knew we had to stop the big plays.”
Stars, like quarterback Chase Litton, who threw two touchdown passes but had little time to hit his receivers downfield most of the night.
Linebacker Rocky Enos was in on every play, delivering as much punishment as he could.
And anytime Florida oral commitment Vernon Hargreaves III came within 5 feet of the football, he did something special — smashing into the punter before he could kick it, blocking an extra point, intercepting a pass in the end zone.
And he did this: on punt coverage, outran the kick and saved the ball from going into the end zone for a touchback, in one smooth motion grabbing and flipping the ball behind his back where it settled on the Durant 2.
So why didn’t Wharton win this game? Because of what happened two plays after Hargreaves’ bit of brilliance.
With the Cougars backed up on their 1, Hamilton powered through the outstretched arms of a defender and rambled — and make no mistake, Hamilton rambles — 65 yards deep into Wharton territory.
That run, and his 46-yarder earlier in the first quarter, didn’t lead to any points, but they kept Wharton away from the scoreboard.
“We had some big plays, some good ones, and some bad ones,” said Durant’s Mike Gottman, easily one of Tampa Bay’s most underappreciated coaches. “But we had enough big ones.”
Like Hooper’s 74-yard punt return that set up Chris Atkins’ short touchdown run that made it 13-12 early in the fourth quarter.
And the defense did the rest. The longer the game went on, the more pressure it brought. It forced a fumble on Wharton’s first drive of the fourth quarter, a three-and-out on the second, and an interception by Randy Baker on the game’s final play.
“We needed to show the county that we can make big plays and do big things,” said Hamilton, “and that were a contender in this county.”
Don’t mistake the Cougars’ exuberance for hubris. They know they won this game last year, and then went into their district opener and got humiliated by Plant City 41-12.
But this time, they feel more ready. They are 4-0 for the first time since 2003, and that team finished 12-2 and advanced to the state semifinals.
“It was a tough game,” said Gottman. “We were on the field a lot. The offense didn’t control the ball like it usually does, so it was good for us to go through this, to be … disheveled. Now I think we feel battle-tested a little bit.”