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PLANT CITY — Going into this penultimate district game, Durant head coach Mike Gottman challenged his team to play its best football of the year.
What he got Friday was somewhere between excellent and good enough, as the Cougars relied on their ground game game to run down the clock as they beat East Bay in a slugfest 45-28. The win keeps Durant in a three-way tie for first place in District 7A-8 with Plant City and Brandon.
“It was do or die and we had to control the ball, and we did, thank goodness,” Gottman said. “Or we would have gotten beat.”
The Cougars (6-2, 3-1) never trailed, but East Bay managed to claw back from a 21-point hole to make it a three-point game midway through the third. The Indians, thanks to the only Durant turnover of the night, received the ball with a short field, starting at the Cougars’ 12-yard line. Two plays later, Tajee Fullwood found a wide-open Brandon Byrd for a 13-yard touchdown strike. On the ensuing two-point conversion attempt, Byrd fumbled the handoff, but Quantavious Gibbs scooped it up and ran into the end zone to make the score 31-28.
East Bay (3-5, 1-3) forced a punt on the ensuing possession, but Fullwood was hit so hard that his helmet popped off on a second-and-9 quarterback keeper deep in the Indians’ territory. Fullwood came out, and East Bay couldn’t convert on third-and-long and returned the ball to the Cougars .
“He’s taking some shots,” East Bay coach Frank LaRosa said of Fullwood, who picked apart the Durant passing defense for four completions of at least 20 yards. “But he’s tough as nails, just the type of quarterback I want.”
Once Durant received the ball at the start of the fourth quarter, the Cougars were able to play to their strengths and run the football. Eight straight running plays moved Durant 75 yards down the field as Zach Hooper ran five yards through the middle of his offensive line for the touchdown. And after an interception by senior Michael Stephens, Jamarlon Hamilton let his team breathe easier as he scored on a 27-yard touchdown run to put the score at 45-28. It was the largest lead for the Cougars since the first quarter, in which they had scored three touchdowns in the span of four plays to open the game with a 21-0 lead.
“We always see the score as 0-0,” said Hamilton, who finished with 18 carries for 176 yards and two touchdowns. “This was a district game, and we came out there and played hard-nosed football like Durant football players do.”