TAMPA — In the days leading up to Gaither’s Week 2 matchup with Plant, Cowboys coach Kirk Karsen never referred to the Panthers by name.
It’s the kind of name that carries a lot of weight in Florida high school football, but Karsen chose instead to refer to Plant as “the team down the street.”
“I stressed all week that we’re not playing against the James Wilder Plant, we’re not playing against the Orson Charles, the Robert Marve Plant. We’re playing against the 2019 team,” Karsen said. “Whatever has happened in the past, it doesn’t matter.”
On Friday, the Cowboys played like it.
All night long, Gaither took advantage of Plant’s weakness in the secondary, as Tony Bartalo threw for 197 yards and four touchdowns on the way to a 35-28 victory. It was the first time Plant, now 0-2 for the first time under coach Robert Weiner, lost to a Hillsborough County team not named Armwood in six years.
Tucker Gleason, a Georgia Tech commit, scored on two quarterback keepers in the opening half, and Bartalo hit Deveon Knighton on a 10-yard touchdown pass as Plant led 14-7 at the break.
But in the second half, Plant couldn’t seem to get going on offense, moving backwards in its first two drives of the third quarter. Gaither, meanwhile, tied it up with a wide-open 31-yard pass from Bartalo to Drelin “Speedy” Pittman.
Pittman had another lengthy, wide-open touchdown reception in the fourth quarter, this one for 67 yards.
“Coach told me before the game, he said, ‘Speedy, listen. The secondary isn’t that fast. We’re going to hit you a lot with quicks,’” Pittman said. “I said, ‘Thank you, Coach.’ And they did.”
Despite Gaither’s success through the air, Plant never trailed until the fourth quarter. The Panthers eventually found the end zone once more on a Hayden Reed 11-yard run in the third — he’d score a 3-yard touchdown in the waning seconds of the game, too — and a blocked extra point after a 76-yard Gaither touchdown pass let the Panthers hang on to a one-point lead.
But when Pittman broke off in the fourth for his second touchdown of the night, Gaither took a lead it would never relinquish.
“It’s something I’ve never had before. We have so many receivers that can just go in the game and make plays,” Bartalo said. “It’s great to have a whole bunch of guys I know I can trust, and they can trust me.”
Plant was down by seven with two minutes on the clock when Gaither faced a third and 3 from the Panthers’ 23. A stop would have given Plant a chance to work its late-game magic, something its become known for under Weiner.
Instead, Gaither stuck to what was working, and Bartalo hit Knighton with the final blow: yet another touchdown pass.
The Cowboys, now 2-0 after wins against a pair of traditional Tampa powerhouses, know that Plant is just a name.
But after Friday, they also know they’ve made a statement.
“It tells (teams) we’re coming,” Pittman said. “We’re ready to play.”