TAMPA — With Plant trailing Armwood by three and less than two minutes to go Friday night, first-year starting quarterback Rex Culpepper tried desperately to pick up a first down near midfield.
Fitting right in with a night of seemingly endless mistakes for both teams, Culpepper’s pass on third and 19 was intercepted. But the play was called back for roughing the passer.
Moments later, Culpepper’s pass on another third-and-long play went out of bounds. Again, the Hawks were called for roughing.
And with 41 seconds to go, Tykese Keaton-Baldwin turned that opportunity into a 15-yard winning touchdown run to lift the Panthers to a 21-17 preseason win against the rival Hawks.
“I saw two teams out there that didn’t want to lose,” Armwood coach Sean Callahan said. “We made some absolutely unbelievable mistakes in the second half that were game-changers.”
It is only preseason, but no one could convince Plant and Armwood the result didn’t matter. That much was clear from the first drive of the matchup at Dad’s Stadium.
It was the first time the programs, which have combined for six state titles, met since October 2012. But despite the dominance both teams have been known for recently, it took the Hawks and Panthers a bit of time to work out the kinks.
The Panthers ran onto the field out of a tunnel clouded in smoke to start the game, but as expected, the Armwood defense prevented the Panthers from continuing the show on their first two drives, one of which ended in a Culpepper interception.
Both teams were plagued by penalties throughout — 24 combined — and the Armwood offense sputtered early, too, picking up just three first downs before the break. Yet the Hawks led 10-6 at halftime.
With a run game led by senior Patrick Brooks, the Panthers began moving the ball as the first quarter wore on, stringing together four 10-plus yard rushes before Culpepper connected with Jordan Reed on a 23-yard screen pass for a touchdown.
Shortly after a Culpepper fumble, Armwood got on the board with a 23-yard field goal early in the second quarter. Culpepper had another turnover on Plant’s next drive, as Armwood defensive back Aaron Covington got his second pick of the night in the end zone.
The Hawks capped the first half with a Noah Johnson 38-yard touchdown run on fourth down, then followed it up with a 20-yard Caylan Holloway touchdown in the third quarter to pad their lead.
Plant’s comeback was just around the corner, though, and the Panthers answered in the fourth with a Brooks 6-yard touchdown and two-point conversion. Johnson threw an interception late in the fourth quarter, which eventually led to Keaton-Baldwin’s winner.
“Football is a game of toughness,” Plant coach Robert Weiner said. “Pat and Tykese were just so physically tough.”
From the day the matchup was planned in February, it promised great things. It was the four-time state champion Panthers against last year’s 6A state runnerup; the nation’s top recruit in Armwood defense end Byron Cowart against Plant’s rookie quarterback — a relative unknown yet a Division I recruit whose potential has been lauded for nearly a year.
Sloppy play on both sides, though, proved that no matter the hype, Tampa Bay’s two giants still have some work to do.
“When two good teams make mistakes, it’s because the other team is turning the screws of pressure,” Weiner said.