TAMPA — The long-awaited season opener went back and forth; three times during Saturday's rivalry matchup between Plant and Hillsborough, the Panthers would make a move, only for the Terriers to counter with one of their own, refusing to roll over in a series that has gone largely in Plant's favor as of late.
But in the waning minutes of Tucker Gleason's very first game under center for the Panthers, the junior quarterback had a final rebuttal that made his inaugural game at Dad's Stadium one to remember.
The Panthers up by 10, Gleason, a transfer from East Lake, scored on a victory-sealing, 1-yard keeper late in the fourth quarter to finally put the game away for good as Plant topped Hillsborough 45-28. Gleason finished with four rushing touchdowns and 106 yards on the ground, throwing for 78 more.
After competing against as many as five quarterbacks for the the starting job last spring, Gleason wanted his first game in gold and black to make a statement.
"I was just out there having fun. Coach (Robert) Weiner's offense is amazing, and it put me in the position to score that," he said. "I'm a junior so I haven't played any, so I just wanted to come out and prove why I could win the starting job."
It was a tie game after the first quarter thanks to 15- and 27-yard rushing scores from Plant's Walter Wilbon and Hillsborough's Adonis Johnson, respectively. But in the second, the Panthers (1-0) put some distance between themselves and the Terriers (0-1), scoring on a fumbled Hillsborough snap in the end zone followed by Gleason's first rushing touchdown of the night.
Not to be outdone, though, Hillsborough's Terence Doston took the ensuing kickoff all the way back to keep the game in reach.
Twice more, the Terriers would do just that, responding to a Gleason score with a touchdown of their own — one on a 36-yard bomb from Charlie Dean to Equanzic Anderson.
After every touchdown, the crowd in Dad's Stadium — known for its electric energy — responded. It was an atmosphere that was totally new to the Panthers' rookie QB.
"It was crazy. There were times I couldn't even hear the play from Coach Weiner," Gleason said. "I would get in the huddle, and my guys would be telling me, 'You gotta speak louder.'"
With 10 minutes to play in the game, Plant got the ball back, up by 10 and starting from its own 8-yard line. From there, Gleason took charge again, leading a 19-play, clock-draining drive he capped with a 1-yard touchdown.
Weiner had a lot of quarterbacks to choose from before the season began, including Dean — who transferred to Hillsborough in the offseason and had 133 yards passing against the Panthers on Saturday.
But if Weiner needed any more reason to be confident in his choice, Saturday's victory gave him everything he needed.
"I'm just pleased to have him on our team. I always say, 'When I grow up, I want to be Tucker Gleason,'" Weiner said. "He was a Plant Panther from Day 1. Everybody else has embraced that, and now he's the guy who wants to take the team to really amazing places."