TAMPA — Every step on Wharton’s spongy, saturated field left a mark, like bear tracks frolicking in a fresh snow.
That made scoring through the air the best option Friday night, which Gaither did three times to post a mushy 21-9 victory over the host Wildcats in a preseason classic.
Gaither, ranked No. 14 in the Tampa Bay Times’ preseason poll while Wharton is 15, got touchdown passes from quarterback Alex McGough to Matt Respess, Jeff Suarez and Amani Oruwariye on the way to the win.
“We played okay, but it could be better,” said McGough, a FIU commitment. “I could be better, everyone could be better.”
Still, McGough seemed pleased, despite being sacked a handful of times by a gaggle of Wildcats like defensive end Antonio Joseph and linebackers Bryan Velez and Daniel Ibsen.
But on McGough’s last touchdown, he was able to pick up a ball that slipped from his hands, elude a trio of would-be tacklers to find a wide-open Suarez downfield.
“He’s really good at keeping the play alive and keeping his eyes downfield,” said coach Jason Stokes.
McGough’s second touchdown, a 4-yard fade to Oruwariye, was set up by a 36-yard run by Malik Huff, the longest rush of the night. Huff would later have a big kickoff return that nearly went for a touchdown.
Oruwariye had an outstanding game, starting with a blocked punt on the first series of the contest. It was recovered by D.J. King on the Wildcat 23, and three plays later McGough hit Respess with a 22-yard touchdown pass.
One of the top defensive back prospects in Tampa Bay, Oruwariye also delivered a big hit on a screen pass that drew a collective “Oooooo” from the crowd.
McGough’s quarterbacking counterpart, Wharton’s Chase Litton, completed six of his 13 passes in the first half for 36 yards before sitting out the second half. His primary targets did not play, and the replacements had a slew of dropped passes.
All six of Litton’s completions were to running back Jeff Keil, who added seven carries as well for 77 yards, including Wharton’s only touchdown on a 41-yard scamper in the first half.