ORLANDO — Plant's Class 5A state title game win came down to 3 inches.
After dominating — and frustrating — Manatee for the first half in running out to a 21-point lead, the Panthers defense was caught in a chess match.
Confusing formations, a physical offensive line, an elusive quarterback and a running back that went into overdrive in the second half nearly made for a disastrous ending for the Panthers.
But for one final time this season, Plant's bend-but-don't-break defense was the difference in the Panthers' 21-14 win over the Hurricanes.
With Manatee trailing by a touchdown, Plant's defense stopped the Hurricanes on downs on their final two possessions, including a fateful fourth and 3 inches that might define the Panthers' championship season.
"In most games, teams have been able to drive on us, but we've been able to make big plays when we've needed to," senior linebacker Mike Mirabella said. "We had a couple blown coverages in the second half. We had to just keep it together."
Plant held Manatee to just 111 yards total offense in the first half, including 11 yards in the first quarter. Plant corner Javonte Martin held Manatee star receiver Ace Sanders to 59 total yards. Cornerback Allen Sampson, playing both ways, got a key interception. Defensive end James Wilder Jr. had two of Plant's seven tackles for a loss.
But the Hurricanes scored two touchdowns in the final four minutes of the third quarter, a period that saw Manatee quarterback Brion Carnes throw for 172 yards. Running back Mike Blakely also had 135 of his 188 yards in the third.
"(Manatee coach Joe Kinnan) was like a magician," Plant co-defensive coordinator John Few said. "He set stuff up really well. You look at his formations, there's no method to his madness. There is no code to decipher it.
"We were looking forward to a good physical war, and he gave us a chess match."
But it took a gamble on a late fourth-down play for the win. With Manatee driving down for what looked like the tying drive, they faced fourth and inches on the Plant 21.
The Panthers expected Carnes on a quarterback sneak, and the Hurricanes pushed the Plant defensive line on previous short-yardage downs, so this time the defensive linemen plunged down to make a pile, forcing Carnes to go over the top and allowing Mirabella and linebacker Josh Varon to push the line.
"They were so powerful with that speed on the outside that it was kind of a pick-your-poison thing," co-defensive coordinator Matt Johnson said. "We got a nice surge from the linebackers. Get low, create a pile and our linebackers do what we do."
Said Varon: "If we don't get it, who knows what happens? We practice goal line every day. We've worked too hard to not get that fourth and 1."