ORLANDO — On the first play of Friday’s Class 8A region semifinal, Plant’s Aaron Banks dropped back and fired a 32-yard pass to Tristan Cooper.
Banks had plenty of time to complete the throw. Cooper outleaped the defensive back for the ball, and Plant had crossed midfield in only a matter of seconds.
It ended up being the Panthers’ longest offensive play of the night. And things would only get worse.
Orlando Dr. Phillips bullied Plant like few teams ever have, holding the defending Class 8A champion to a season-low 124 yards and keeping its vaunted offense out of the end zone in a 24-7 victory. It was Plant’s earliest playoff exit since 2005, coach Robert Weiner’s second season.
“We didn’t seem to have an answer for them,” Weiner said. “And they seemed to have an answer everything we had.”
Dr. Phillips, the state’s top-ranked 8A team, advanced to a region final against East Lake and avenged a 36-point beating the Panthers administered in Tampa last year in the same round of the playoffs.
Eric Harrell rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns, Roderick Proctor had five receptions for 178 yards and another score and the Orlando Panthers had five sacks and nearly double that many pressures of Banks in a smothering defensive effort.
“We got to the quarterback constantly all night,” Dr. Phillips coach Rodney Wells said. “We’ve got four seniors on our defensive line and they all compete at a high level. You can’t double team four guys.”
It was a stunning turn of events for Plant (10-2), which rolled up 349 yards and tallied 13 sacks of Dr. Phillips’ then-senior quarterback Nick Patti in its 49-13 win last year.
Three plays after Banks’ completion to Cooper on the first play of the game, he was intercepted by Dr. Phillips safety Jean Wesley Guerilus — a defensive back pressed into action because the host Panthers were missing injured blue-chip safety Marcell Harris.
But Dr. Phillips (12-0) didn’t need Harris to shut down the visiting Panthers. Instead, their defensive line and linebackers put the clamps on Plant’s running game, and their offense cobbled together the sort of balanced offensive performance they couldn’t muster in last week’s win over Wharton.
After two offensive possessions that netted 10 yards, Dr. Phillips found an offensive rhythm near the end of the first quarter. Kerry Bernard broke off a 28-yard run, then Alton Meeks completed a 25-yard pass to Proctor.
A couple plays later — only seconds into the second quarter — the host Panthers finished off the 82-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run by Harrell.
“We just kept doing what we were doing,” Harrell said. “We knew it would bust open eventually.”
Plant never got that sort of break and was held scoreless in the first half for the first time since Oct. 28, 2011, when the Panthers lost 21-0 at Armwood.
“We threw everything we had at them,” Weiner said.
After Plant was forced to punt on its first two possessions of the second half, Meeks and Proctor soon struck again for the game’s deciding points.
On third and 4 from their own 15, Meeks completed a short pass to Proctor along the sideline. Proctor feigned as if he was going out of bounds, accelerated down the sideline and outraced Plant’s defensive backs for an 85-yard touchdown.
“We felt like we could exploit some of their coverages,” Proctor said. “And, you know, it worked.”
Meeks and Proctor connected again early in the fourth quarter, this time for a 38-yard pass that set up a 7-yard touchdown run from Harrell.
Meanwhile, as Weiner said, nothing Plant tried worked.
Running back Wesley Bullock, who came into the game with more than 1,400 yards of offense and 12 touchdowns, was held to 39 yards rushing on 15 carries. He scored Plant’s only touchdown on a 91-yard kickoff return midway through the fourth quarter.
Banks didn’t fare much better, going 7-of-23 for 91 yards. At one point in the second half, he threw nine straight incompletions.
“This was just a mirror of what we’ve been doing all season,” Wells said. “Our kids saw the film of last year’s game (against) Plant and were disgusted. They knew this game meant a lot.”