TAMPA — All Gaither needed was 3 yards. Convert the third down with less than a minute to go in a district matchup against Steinbrenner, and the Cowboys would be going back to the playoffs.
The play came straight from quarterback Alex McGough, the senior who had led Gaither to the postseason each of the last two years. He wasn’t about to break his own streak.
So during a timeout moments before, McGough gave his team its marching orders. When the ball was snapped, his lead blocker blocked the end, so McGough took it around and raced 60 yards for a touchdown.
“The only thing I could think of was, please run faster than everybody else,” he said after Gaither’s 35-30 win against the Warriors.
The Cowboys’ victory and Sickles’ 35-8 win against Tampa Bay Tech on Friday sealed Gaither’s place as district runnerup, and more importantly, a spot in the playoffs.
There was a lot riding on the game. Still, the Cowboys — who accrued 10 penalties Friday — worked against themselves early.
On Steinbrenner’s first drive of the second quarter, Gaither’s Tyler Trumbach pinned the Warriors at the 6-yard line on a punt, and the Cowboy defense followed by forcing a three-and-out.
But as the Warriors lined up to punt out of their end zone, a Gaither unsportsmanlike penalty handed Steinbrenner a first down. Two plays later quarterback Curtis Fitch connected with Jake Carroll for an 82-yard tying touchdown.
“We’re tied because of penalties,” Gaither coach Jason Stokes told his team at halftime, the score deadlocked at 14. “If we get our act together, we win.”
Miscues continued to haunt Gaither. Following McGough’s touchdown run with 46 seconds to go, Steinbrenner’s Carroll responded with a 75-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. With 30 seconds left, the Warriors recovered the ensuing onside kick.
But unlike McGough had done all night, Fitch buckled under pressure. On third and 10 from the Cowboys’ 41-yard line, Fitch threw a hurried pass that was intercepted by Gaither’s Amani Oruwariye.
“I’m already losing my hair,” Stokes said. “I definitely lost more.”
McGough — who threw for 189 yards — admits that, two years ago, he wouldn’t have been able to make that winning play call like he did. When he reached the end zone after his 60-yard dash, the FIU commit spiked the ball to the turf, and his teammates leapt on his back in celebration.
The Cowboys were cited for unsportsmanlike conduct. But this time, it was okay.
“Life goes on,” McGough said about his penalty, a relieved grin stretched across his face.
With a third straight postseason ahead of them, life does go on for the Cowboys — in more ways than one.