The Palmetto Panthers put an end to a seven-year losing streak to rival South Dade with a 22-7 victory at Harris Field on Thursday night, a big step forward for a program trying claw its way back to the top after a long dry spell.
Junior tailback Trey Flowers put the finishing touches on the victory with a 5-yard touchdown run with 5 minutes 17 seconds remaining, capping a 25-carry, 113-yard night as the Panthers — who haven’t been to the playoffs since 2008 — improved to 4-0 and 1-0 in District 16-8A play.
“What’s next? A bye week next week,” Flowers said afterward with a grin. “And ice baths.”
Said Palmetto coach Mike Manasco: “South Dade is a great program with a lot of history. It’s special for us to get this one. This is one we circled on our schedule and said ‘Hey, if we want to change Palmetto, this is the one we’ve got to get.’ ”
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The Panthers defense, led by defensive end Kenny Spiller, produced six sacks and held the Bucs to only 26 yards rushing on 26 attempts. In their first four games, the Panthers have outscored their opponents 148-14.
On Thursday, the defense got on the board first for the Panthers when Spiller tackled South Dade running back Marquan Stewart in the end zone for a safety. Less than four minutes later, the Panthers blocked a punt and cashed it in when linebacker Chris Wright scooped up the ball and scored with 10:15 to go in the first half.
The Bucs had an opportunity to score late in the first half when they drove down to the Palmetto 6-yard line. But an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty drove them back to the Panthers’ 21 and the Bucs came away with nothing.
Still, despite being down 9-0 at the half, the Bucs were still very much in it in the second half even with three of their best players — defensive back D.J. Ivey, defensive end Chei Hill and linebacker Devin Hardy — sidelined with injuries.
The Bucs took advantage of a high snap over the head of Panthers punter Ernesto Garcia and took over at the Palmetto 20 with 3:02 to play in the third quarter. Four plays later, quarterback Darnell Durham scored on a 5-yard scramble to make it 9-7 with 1:53 remaining in the quarter.
But Palmetto answered with a 92-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Hugh Towson to receiver Joe Hardy, who made a one-handed catch in stride 30 yards down field after the cornerback covering him fell down. All Hardy had to do after that was coast into the end zone.
Still, the Bucs had a chance. With 9:39 to play, Towson fumbled an exchange with Flowers in the backfield near midfield and linebacker Bernard Hudson picked it up and returned it to the Palmetto 8-yard line. Trailing 15-8, Durham took three shots at the end zone but came away empty. Kicker Santiago Gomez followed with a 27-yard field goal attempt that he hooked wide left.
The Panthers then drove 80 yards in nine plays and put the game on ice behind Flowers.
“He’s a tough back,” Manasco said. “It’s hard to tackle 203 pounds in the fourth quarter. I think you saw that here [Thursday night]. The offensive linemen, man, you’ve got to give it up to those guys. They blocked every single play.”
The Panthers were 3-0 last season when they played South Dade and were blown off the field 42-0. Palmetto finished the season 5-5. But this team, Manasco said, is different. It’s more mature and ready to win.
“I’ve been waiting since my freshman year to beat South Dade,” Spiller said. “It’s been years since Palmetto has been a good team. A lot of people doubted us. We just came to show out.”