TAMPA — Having averaged nearly 47 points per game prior to Friday's regular-season finale, Tampa Bay Tech had grown accustomed to jumping ahead early and pounding it up the middle. In fact, that was pretty much the strategy against Gaither when, on the first play from scrimmage, quarterback Michael Penix Jr. handed it off to Treshaun Ward.
This time, things went a bit awry.
Ward fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Devonte Kindred, and two plays later, the Cowboys found the end zone on an 18-yard touchdown pass.
That was the only turnover, though, that would go in Gaither's favor.
The Cowboys went on to have three of their own, two in the end zone, giving Tampa Bay Tech's offense just enough room to do what it does best. The Titans didn't win it on the ground, this time, but Penix made up for that, throwing for 268 yards and three scores on the way to a 42-21 Titan victory.
"I think this game right here was the best thing we could have had," coach Jayson Roberts said. "It was a great opportunity for us to be able to face some adversity and work on, as a team, how we deal with it and being able to fight back."
After Gaither's opening score, Tampa Bay Tech (9-1) struggled to find a groove on offense, punting away its next two possessions. The Titans finally tied it up early in the second quarter when Penix hit Tyrese Hall with a 10-yard touchdown pass. But sticking to their offensive roots, the Titans weren't done just yet.
On the first play of the next drive, Gaither (7-3) quarterback Shaye Scott was picked off by safety Trevaughn Banks, who ran it back 27 yards for a touchdown.
"I just saw before the play, the quarterback looked at me, and I looked at him, too. He called hike, and I looked at him again," Banks said. "He threw it, and I got it. I think my interception boosted the offense up."
Tampa Bay Tech led by a touchdown at halftime, but after the break, Gaither sustained a long drive, eventually facing third-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Once again, Banks came up big, recovering a fumble in the end zone on what would have been a game-tying Gaither score.
In the fourth quarter, safety Darren Turner intercepted another Gaither pass in the end zone, all but eliminating the Cowboys' chance at a comeback.
"Earlier in the season, those guys took a lot of heat because the few scores we gave up did come deep in the passing game," Roberts said about his secondary. "To see those guys bounce back and respond and make some big plays was encouraging, especially going into the playoffs."
The Gaither defense game-planned well defensively for a Tampa Bay Tech team that's been doing most of its damage on the ground. Though Ward ended the night with two short touchdown runs, the Titans rushed for an underwhelming 113 yards as a team.
But when the Titan run game is shut down, it leaves Penix open to do his thing. With just more than nine minutes to play, the Tennessee commit launched a 70-yard bomb to Myron Scott, whose score gave Tampa Bay Tech the three-touchdown advantage with which it'd end the game.
Despite their continued offensive prowess, Tampa Bay Tech struggled, at times. Penalties pushed the Titans back, and the Cowboys amassed 296 yards of total offense.
So this time — with playoff football just a week away — end zone turnovers and even the final score wasn't Tampa Bay Tech's biggest takeaway.
"We've been blowing teams out, and it's been easy. But in the playoffs, it's not going to be that easy," Turner said. "We've got to put it in in practice, and then we've got to execute on the field."