TAMPA — Plant City’s big-play first half, namely receiver Mario Williams’ field day, led the visiting Raiders to an entertaining 37-29 victory over Jesuit in a meeting between two of Tampa Bay’s top teams.
Considered among the state’s best wide receivers, Williams caught three passes — all for touchdowns ― covering 150 yards from senior transfer Makenzie Kennedy. The killer came with 10 seconds left, a 43-yarder that made the score 27-15.
Jesuit rallied back behind junior quarterback Kiael Kelly, but the Raiders defense came up with two key fourth-quarter stops, Keyshawn Green sacking Kelly as Jesuit was driving for a possible tying score.
“We knew this was going to be a test, a test of our manhood,” said Plant City coach James Booth. “They’re huge up front, they’ve got some maulers. And I wanted to see the toughness of our guys, especially on the D-line. Jesuit was able to move the ball late, when we got tired, but at the end, the pressure on the quarterback was huge.”
As was Williams in the first half. Jesuit ran nearly twice as many plays as Plant City in the opening two quarters, but that was simply because the Raiders didn’t need many to score. Their four touchdowns averaged nearly 58 yards and they outgained Jesuit 254-112.
On Plant City’s third play, Kennedy dropped a simple slant to Williams, who took it the rest of the way 72 yards for a 7-0 lead. After an Emmanuel Baez sack for a 15-yard loss ended Jesuit’s next drive, the Raiders faced fourth and 12 but scored on a 35-yard delivery to Williams in the end zone.
It was 14-0 after one quarter but, Jesuit gained momentum on the last play with a fourth-down conversion pass from Kelly to Lex Capitano. Junior running back Ricky Parks (15 carries, 85 yards) added a 16-yard run then followed dominant blocking up the middle for a 5-yard TD. A trick play pass made it 14-8, then Jesuit forced a third and 11 — only to have Zamir Knighten sprint 81 yards on a draw play for another long score. Knighten, the only Raiders running back with a carry, went for 136 yards on 19 attempts.
Freshman Joquez Smith’s thrilling kick return, bobbling the ball before going backwards and nearly getting swarmed under at his own 2 before escaping at getting to the 40, sparked Jesuit to another touchdown. Kelly found Brett Gerena on a 5-yard pass, and was 9-for-12 in the first half, all going to different receivers. Kelly finished 17-of-25 for 188 yards and three TD.
Jesuit, in fact, had a chance to take the lead into the break, getting its first stop and the ball back with a minute left. But a sack and a penalty led to a punt that gave Plant City 18 seconds, and Kennedy stepped up in the pocket to fire a dagger delivery to Williams.
“Yeah, we wanted to take advantage of that situation. We knew if we could get that one score going into the half it could really separate this game. I thought Makenzie threw a great ball,” Booth said.
Though held to to 10 points the rest of the way, the first three were part of a six-minute drive to start the second half. The Raiders converted three third-and-longs, including a 14-yard pass to Williams (his final grab, finishing 4-164) and two pass interferences. Chris Rodriguez booted a 24-yard field goal to make it 30-15.
Jesuit answered with a steady five-play drive, ending when Kelly shuffled a pass to Jaydn Girard for a 36-yard TD. But the Raiders responded with Kennedy’s fourth touchdown, a 33-yarder to Melek Ford, one play after finding Reagan Ealy for 27.
It gave Kennedy double his touchdown output from last season for Strawberry Crest.
“What he’s been able to do during the spring, and offseason, he’s really soaked up everything and how we want to do it,” Booth said. “His approach to practice has changed to fit the standard that we have. He’s an unknown kid. What type of player is going to be? I knew it. So this doesn’t shock me. The ability that he has is starting to surface and he’s got the talent to become an elite quarterback.”
Kennedy ended 8-of-18 for 243 yards, but the Tigers shut him out in the fourth quarter while making the finish dramatic. The teams exchanged turnovers, with Williams proving to be human on a bobble picked off by Spencer Williams that gave Jesuit life, but after a Parks 18-yard run the drive ended when he was stuffed by Antron Robinson on fourth-and-inches.
Raleigh Oxendine was his counterpart on the Jesuit side, making several big stuffs on the night.
Christian Jones’ 24-yard catch-and-run drew the Tigers to within 37-29 with 3:28 left and they got the ball at midfield with 1:34 remaining. A personal foul had Jesuit at the 30 before the Raiders made the last stop.
Girard led Jesuit with four catches for 79 yards.