LAKELAND — One week after putting up 55 points against Sickles in a first-round playoff game, Lakeland picked up right where it left off when it hosted Plant in the 7A region semifinal Friday. On their first drive, the Dreadnaughts marched down the field, using just three big pass plays to find the end zone and take an early lead.
But what began as the Panthers' liability quickly became their greatest asset, and Plant stole the show in the first half with defensive intensity.
Plant's offense, though, couldn't match it. And as the Panthers attack sputtered, Lakeland found its footing, wearing Plant down for a 21-11 victory.
"They were very aggressive on film; they were way more aggressive tonight. They were as about aggressive as you can be, and they were physical," Plant coach Robert Weiner said about Lakeland's defense. "When it comes to championship games, you play at a whole nother level than what you see on film, so we expected a whole nother level from them."
From the start, the Panthers were strong against the run, and Lakeland rushed for minus-5 yards on five carries during its opening drive. Against the Plant secondary, however, the Dreadnaughts found their opportunity.
Lakeland quarterback Holden Hotchkiss completed three passes for 88 yards on the first drive, the last to James Robinson for a 37-yard touchdown.
But that was all the offensive success Lakeland would have in the first half.
Stephen Yaffe capped Plant's first drive with a 37-yard field goal, and Plant's offense, too, struggled to get going after that. Yaffe missed a 37-yard field goal in the second quarter, and quarterback Dane Frantzen had his first of two interceptions before the break. The Dreadnaught offense floundered even more, and after its TD drive Lakeland had just 14 yards in the first half.
"It was one drive and from then on it was nothing," Michael Murphy said about the Panthers' defensive performance in the first half. "I thought that we really pulled together. I mean, a for while there we were really playing for each other. If we don't get this stop, our season's over."
Lakeland had just 5 yards rushing in the first half. But with one play early in the third quarter, A.J. Davis made up for it.
Back-to-back false start penalties forced Plant to punt away its first possession of the half from its end zone, and Lakeland took over on its 40-yard line. Davis then broke away for a 40-yard touchdown run.
Plant's ensuing drive ended in another Frantzen interception near the goal line, but as it had done all night, Plant's defense came out to save the day, tackling Lakeland quarterback Holden Hotchkiss in the end zone for a safety.
As the game wore on, Hotckiss, who completed 10 of 16 passes for 158 yards, continued to kill Plant with the pass, and the Panther defense faltered early in the fourth quarter. Lakeland had a 99-yard scoring drive to go up 21-5 with just more than nine minutes to play.
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That's when Plant responded with its go-to move.
"We talked about it at halftime. I'm the hot route there. So I'm expecting to get the ball, and my job is to beat that middle linebacker," Murphy said about his 65-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. "I did. Dane threw a great ball."
Murphy's score and a missed two-point conversion put the Panthers within 10. But the Panthers failed to muster a first down for the rest of the game.
For Weiner, whose team fell in the second round of the playoffs for the second straight season, the problem was a familiar one. It may have been a different opponent, but the reason for Plant's downfall was the same.
"Really you look back at three games we lost this season, and it was all kind of the same circumstance. We just weren't good finishers," Weiner said. "I'm not 100 percent sure what the answer is."