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Durant defense rewards coach’s trust in bottling up Plant City

The Cougars also showcase a pair of offensive playmakers in nabbing a big win over their rivals.
Durant's defense is a wall most of the night, helping the Cougars to a 29-6 victory over rival Plant City.
Durant's defense is a wall most of the night, helping the Cougars to a 29-6 victory over rival Plant City. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 16

PLANT CITY — Typically, if Durant wins the pregame coin toss, coach Claybo Varnum is putting his offense on the field to set the tone for the night. But Friday, in his first rivalry matchup at the helm for Durant, Varnum decided to shake things up.

After the unit’s performance against Plant City, Varnum might never go back.

The Durant defense held the Raiders to just two first downs and 56 yards of offense in the first half. Senior quarterback Marcus Miguele and junior running back Calub Connell had a pair of touchdowns apiece to lead the Cougars to a 29-6 victory.

“All year long I’ve doubted our defense; I’ve received the first kick. But tonight we said, ‘Let’s defer, let’s put our defense out there,’” Varnum said. “And they showed up, holy smokes.”

Plant City had a 32-yard run on its opening drive, but the Raiders had little to speak of offensively for the rest of the first half. Miguele, meanwhile, showed off his arm early, connecting with junior receiver Jeremiah Gines for a 50-yard pass to set up his own 11-yard touchdown run on a quarterback keeper late in the first quarter.

From there, Durant (7-1) kept feeding 5-foot-8, 145-pound Connell the ball. The Cougars kept scoring.

Senior kicker Deason Nichols made a 32-yard field goal on the very next drive. On the next two after that, Connell scored on a 19-yard reception from Miguele, then a 16-yard run.

“I just saw the ball coming right at me, and I just thought to myself, ‘Don’t drop it,’” Connell said about his first touchdown reception of the year. “As soon as I caught it, I dove for the end zone.”

In the second half, Durant largely kept the ball on the ground as the clock wound down. Plant City (4-3) mustered 48 yards on its first two possessions of the third quarter, but what little success the Raiders found was soon negated by interceptions on back-to-back drives.

With the second interception, freshman cornerback Jayden Cornelius returned it to the Plant City 15-yard line, setting up yet another Miguele touchdown run.

With just a few minutes remaining and the Cougars up by 29, Durant’s focus shifted to maintaining the shutout.

It wasn’t to be. Plant City scored with just over two minutes to play when senior receiver Jaylen Gadson caught a 41-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Clint Danzey. The Cougars, who blocked the ensuing extra point, shook it off quickly, posing for photos with their newly acquired rivalry trophy just moments later.

After years spent as a Durant football player himself and then an assistant, Varnum took it all in from midfield, his first victory celebration as head coach in a rivalry nearly as old as he is. The Cougars are having one of their best seasons in years.

Varnum said hasn’t given that fact much thought.

“To be sitting here at, what are we now? 7-1? I don’t think about it,” Varnum said. “I show up every day, I do a load of laundry, and I do my best to keep my head down and stay humble.”