TAMPA — For the better, brutal part of 48 minutes, they shed blocks and anonymity with equal fury. When Armwood's backs tried sprinting to the edge, they were there. When a Hawks quarterback set up in the pocket, they were there.
And when the Hawks' sleep segues into nightmares the next few nights, they'll be there, too.
Meet the Plant Panthers' defense. From the school that annually brings you Division I passers and receivers who seemingly hold on to everything except national championship crystal, we present the primary reason the Panthers are two wins shy of another state title.
"It's about time for a little coming-out party for those guys," Plant coach Bob Weiner said.
The party reached a euphoric level when Armwood kicker Garrett Schmiz's 32-yard field goal hooked left with eight seconds to play, preserving the Panthers' 17-14 victory in the Class 4A region finals before a standing-room-only crowd at Dads Stadium.
The miss ended a wild Hawks rally in the final five minutes. Trailing 17-6, Armwood scored on Matt Eastman's 1-yard run with 3:05 remaining and watched backup quarterback Rob Jones slice up the middle for the conversion after a penalty put the ball at the Plant 13.
After forcing a three-and-out, Jones hit Vaughn Cross — who snagged the ball over two Plant (12-1) defenders — for 37 yards, and Tavari Grant for 15 to set up the field-goal try.
"The right team won," said Hawks coach Sean Callahan, whose team ran for a season-low 46 yards and lost two of six fumbles. "We turned the ball over. We had our opportunities and didn't make the most of them at the time."
Before that dizzying sequence, it was Plant's defense infusing life into a rivalry Armwood (12-1) — winner of the past three meetings — appeared poised to own outright.
Subtract freshman Matt Jones' 52-yard touchdown run two plays into the second quarter, and Armwood managed 33 first-half yards. Quarterback Mywan Jackson missed all but two series of the half with an apparent right shoulder injury.
On Jones' second series of the game, he was sacked twice. On his third, he was picked by linebacker Mike Mirabella. When Jackson returned for a spell in the second half, the Hawks weren't any better, fumbling on their first two series.
"I think overall we had a pretty good game plan … but it really got down to our front four really came after them and our guys tackled them well," said Panthers defensive coordinator James Harrell, whose unit has allowed 35 total points in its past five games.
Meantime, Plant's offense did just enough. Sophomore quarterback Phillip Ely (9-for-28, 143 yards) hit tight end Orson Charles in the right corner of the end zone for 26-yard TD to give his team a 7-6 halftime lead.
After Tyler Rhodes' 22-yard third-quarter field goal, Ely found Charles again on a short pass, then watched the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder break at least two tackles en route to a 38-yard TD with 2:08 to play in the third.
Armwood managed one first down on its next possession. A Petey Smith interception on Plant's ensuing drive gave the Hawks the ball at the Panthers' 26, but two sacks by tackle Javon Mention thwarted that series.