TAMPA — Ask anyone outside of South Tampa and they would say Plant's state championship aspirations died once All-America quarterback Aaron Murray broke his left leg seven weeks ago.
Without their leader, coach Robert Weiner instilled in his other 88 players that the dream wasn't over. And when the Panthers took the field for Friday's Class 4A state semifinal against Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer, Murray — who paced his rehabilitation twice as fast as expected — returned with them.
They needed Murray — and more. The Panthers turned in a complete team effort in a back-and-forth affair at Dads Stadium, beating Dwyer 33-21 with not only Murray's arm, but a rejuvenated running game and some clutch defensive plays.
With the victory, the Panthers (13-1) earned the right to play for their second state title in three years.
"We're a team of destiny," defensive lineman Austin Clark said. "Things like this only happen to a team that's destined to make it to that final game and get that ring like we've always wanted."
Now the only thing that stands in the way of a storybook ending is Tallahassee Lincoln on Dec. 20 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
"There's Disney all over this story," senior linebacker Beau Hume said. "We persevered. We brought a whole new definition of the word team."
Trailing 21-20 with 7:28 remaining, junior wide receiver DeAndre Queen took an end-around down the Plant sideline 45 yards to the Dwyer 25-yard line. Two plays later, senior running back Marco Cobb, who ran for 56 yards and two touchdowns, scored the eventual winning touchdown from 4 yards out.
The win didn't come without controversy. In the final three minutes, Dwyer (12-2) had an 83-yard touchdown pass called back by a holding penalty — the second time a touchdown was called back.
"It's horrible," Dwyer coach Jack Daniels said. "Try riding back four hours with these kids, nine of them played both ways, after having two touchdowns called back."
After Dwyer took an early 7-0 lead, Murray — back from a broken left fibula and dislocated ankle — brought his team back with one throw, rifling a 33-yard touchdown to Queen on Plant's first offensive play from scrimmage after Javonte Martin's 60-yard kickoff return.
"I was just praying I didn't overthrow him," Murray said. "My line gave me good protection, and they gave it to me all night. I got a little bit of rust off there, and the rest of the way I felt pretty good."
After trailing 14-13 at the half, Murray opened the third quarter with a seven-play, 54-yard touchdown drive, connecting with Nathan Marvel for passes of 42 and 13 yards, the latter for a touchdown.
"The kid's a phenomenal quarterback," Daniels said of Murray, who was 12-for-25 for 199 yards and two touchdowns. "He puts throws where most people can't put them."
But Dwyer answered with a 13-play, 80-yard drive to take a 21-20 lead and drove down the field on its next possession until Walter Hudnall intercepted a pass in the end zone.
"There were a lot of moments when we didn't look like we were going to do it," Weiner said. "But we just held on tight. That's what we did.
"We held onto each other and pulled together."