TAMPA — The collapse in Carrollwood was 5 yards from fruition.
The Gaither Cowboys appeared on the brink of losing on the final play for the second Friday in a row. With the Ron Allen Field crowd on its feet, the Cowboys defense was on its heels.
Tampa Bay Tech had scored 22 points in a row and was 5 yards from scoring the go-ahead touchdown. That’s when a 185-pound junior outside linebacker named Matthew Williams stopped the bleeding — and started the euphoria.
Williams’ backfield hit on Titans running back Deon Thompson jarred the ball loose with 14 seconds to play. The Cowboys (7-2, 4-1) recovered, preserving a surreal 35-32 triumph and clinching the Class 7A, District 7 title.
A loss, and Gaither would’ve been eliminated from playoff contention.
“We’ve got to drag them across the coals to get a ‘W,’ ” said Cowboys coach Jason Stokes, oozing equal parts elation and exasperation. “These kids are something else, but they found a way, God bless ’em.”
The fumble squelched what would’ve certainly gone down as the greatest rally in Titans history.
Down 35-10 after Cowboys quarterback Alex McGough exploited a blown coverage for a 73-yard touchdown pass to Shug Oyegunle on the fourth quarter’s first play, TBT (6-3, 4-1) scored on its next three possessions.
A 1-yard scoring sneak by sophomore quarterback Deon Cain (23-for-41, 186 yards) with 3:52 to go cut Gaither’s lead to 35-32.
Thompson, held to minus-2 yards in the first half, finished with 135 including an 11-yard touchdown midway through the fourth.
“I can’t express how proud I am of the effort,” said Titans coach Jayson Roberts, whose squad now must travel to undefeated Durant for the first round of the playoffs.
“Like I told the guys, being down 28-3 in the second half … a lesser team would’ve folded and probably allowed themselves to get blown out. These kids put it together, they never stopped believing that they weren’t out of the game.”
Preceding TBT’s comeback was a veritable clinic by McGough on exploiting a flawed zone defense. McGough (14-for-31, 295 yards, five TDs, two INTs) threw touchdown strikes on four consecutive second-half possessions to give Gaither a 28-10 lead.
His fourth may have been his finest. The 6-foot-3 junior rolled right against a furious rush and threw back to his left to Vu Le (five catches, 144 yards), who had no Titan within 15 yards of him. Le caught it and turned around for an 80-yard touchdown.
Oyegunle added 135 yards and three TDs on five catches.
“Oh man, I’m so proud of the kid,” Stokes said of McGough.
“He made his mistakes, but I tell you what man, his guts, man. Staying in that pocket with everything around him, he kept his eyes downfield. I’m so, so proud of that kid, so proud of him. He grew up.”