TAMPA — As the punt sailed high into the air, Zach Hooper took a peek down the field and decided in the moment that he was going to do his own thing.
Instead of calling for a fair catch — as expected coming out of the huddle — Hooper chose to field the punt and make the play Durant desperately needed in the fourth quarter.
Hooper darted through Wharton’s punt coverage team for a 74-yard return and Chris Atkins scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later, lifting Durant to a 13-12 victory Friday night.
“The play wasn’t made for me to return it,” Hooper said. “But when I saw (the ball) in the air and saw no one was coming for me, I took the opening and acted on it.”
Jarmarlon Hamilton rushed for 168 yards, Terry Grimsley returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown and the Cougars (4-0) caused three other turnovers in a victory that has them off to their best start since going 3-1 in 2004.
Coming into Friday’s game, Durant had outscored opponents 122-7 and boasted a streak of 10 straight quarters without allowing a score.
The Cougars figured to buckle a little against Wharton (3-1), which operates a pass-oriented spread attack helmed by the 6-foot-6 Chase Litton.
Instead, the Cougars’ defense held firm and harassed Litton and the Wildcats into their worst offensive performance of the season.
On an offensive possession that was typical of the night, Durant drove to Wharton’s 15-yard line midway through the first quarter but failed to gain a yard then missed a 32-yard field goal. On the next play, Grimsley broke hard on Litton’s pass attempt, caught the ball and streaked down the sideline for a score.
Durant threatened to score again late in the first quarter after Hamilton peeled off a 65-yard run and officials added a 15-yard facemask penalty. But the Cougars came up short again, this time when Wharton’s Vernon Hargreaves III picked off Durant quarterback Trey VanDeGrift in the end zone.
Hargreaves returned the ball 64 yards to set up Wharton’s first score. Litton then completed his first passes of the game for 2, 18 and 13 yards, the final one a touchdown to Keith Hopkins that tied the score at 6.
Wharton coach David Mitchell decided to go for a two-point conversion with Hargreaves in the Wildcat position, a play that was stuffed short of the end zone. That would come back to loom large for Wharton.
The Wildcats took the lead early in the third quarter, when Litton completed a short pass to Deon Sampson and the 155-pound receiver spun out of a tackle and raced to the end zone for a 56-yard touchdown.
But Sampson theatrically dove into the end zone at the end of the run, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The infraction was assessed on the extra point, pushing Wharton out of range for the kick.
Litton’s pass fell short on the two-point attempt and Wharton had to settle for a 12-6 lead.
Even with Durant’s offense failing to capitalize on scoring opportunities, Wharton’s special teams miscues gave the Cougars enough life to stay in the game.
“We never thought we were out of it,” Hooper said. “We pride ourselves on not giving up.”