The Florida Tech Panthers lost their final home game of the season Saturday, falling to the West Georgia Wolves 20-13. The Panthers defense was stellar for much of the day, but their efforts were wasted when quarterback Mark Cato threw a pick-6 with 24.1 seconds left, giving the 15th-ranked Wolves the come from behind victory.
The Panthers defense, led by Evan Thompson’s 12 tackles (10 solos), 11 from J.T. Hassell (9 solos) and 2.5 sacks from Darius Gordon, held the top-ranked offense in the GSC in check for most of the game, until they just wore down in the final minutes.
“I thought our defense played outstanding, probably the best defensive performance I had seen this team ever play,” said Panthers head coach Steve Englehart. “We just didn’t take advantage of opportunities. We had plays schemed up in the first half, had guys running wide open and either they’d drop the pass or we didn’t throw it to them.”
The special teams have been the Panthers Achilles heel this season and on Saturday, that was again the case. They missed an extra point and two field goals, which put them in the position to have to throw the ball on the final drive, as opposed to running out the clock.
“We didn’t kick the ball well at all,” said Englehart. Punting, kickoff, obviously we missed two field goals and an extra point. I don’t know if wind was a factor, I didn’t think it was that bad, but obviously, we didn’t execute some of the things we need to execute to win a football game like this.”
The Panthers (5-5, 3-4 GSC) got off to a good start with a 53-yard return by Brian Spurgeon. there was a 15-yard personal foul tacked on to that, putting the ball at the Wolves 25. Cato found Demetrius Frazier from nine yards out on the fifth play of the drive, putting the Panthers up 6-0. Zachary Leatherman missed the extra point, which was a sign of things to come.
The Wolves (8-2, 5-2 GSC) went three-and-out on their first four possessions, spilling over into the second quarter. The only decent drive West Georgia had in the second was a 12-play drive that was only extended because of a roughing the kicker call on the punt. That drive did not result in any points.
Florida Tech was forced to punt on their next possession, but a Wolves’ fumble was recovered by T.J. Rodriguez at the Wolves 35. Unfortunately, the Panthers stalled and went for it on 4th-&-5, but came up empty, giving the ball back at the West Georgia 30.
After Thierry Lafortune sacked Wolves’ quarterback Willie Candler for a loss of 27, the Panthers came up with a blocked punt. Justin Wright got his hand in and Joe Jackson got the recovery, setting the Panthers up at the Wolves 12-yard line. Three incomplete passes later, Brad Williams was called on for a 30-yard field goal try and he hooked it wide right, with 1:23 to go in the half.
Candler was sacked again on their final drive of the half by the combination of Jimmy Hinel and Gordon, helping force another punt. The Panthers got the ball back and took a knee on the first play, taking their slim 6-0 lead to the locker room.
“We should’ve been up at halftime a lot better than what we were, as good as our defense was playing,” said Englehart. “We get a blocked punt but we have other special teams blunders.”
West Georgia got the ball to start the second half and on the first play, Jackson is flagged for pass interference. No one in the stadium but the men in stripes saw pass interference on the play, so it was called. Candler ran the offense well on the drive and it resulted in a 29-yard field goal, cutting the Panthers lead to 6-3, with 9:19 left in the quarter.
Florida Tech gained just two yards on the next drive and a 35-yard punt by Kyle Gullickson set the Wolves up at the Panthers 49. After Candler rushed for 12 yards, he decided to throw on the next play and Yawn Coleman made a great leaping catch, returning it 54 yards to the Wolves 26. Again the Panthers failed to move the ball and Gullickson missed a 42-yard field goal.
The Wolves returned the favor on the next drive, going 12 plays, only to see Trey Wiggins miss a 41-yarder, keeping the score at 6-3 with 31 seconds left in the third.
The Panthers were helped by a personal foul penalty on their next drive, moving the ball to the Wolves 20. Three plays later, Cato found Spurgeon from nine yards out, capping a nine-play, 76-yard drive. This time the extra point was good and the Panthers were up 13-3.
A personal foul on the kickoff started the Wolves next drive at the 40 and Candler, who ran for 49 yards on the day, scored on a 23-yard run and made it a 13-10 game, with 11:47 to go. The Panthers never got a chance to answer, as West Georgia recovered the ensuing kickoff. The ball just hung in the air and Spurgeon fumbled. It was recovered by L.J. Smith at the Panthers 21. The Wolves couldn’t take advantage of the short field and Wiggins was well short from 30 yards out.
Florida Tech punted on their next two possessions, while the Wolves went on an eight-play drive and got the game-tying field goal, with 48 seconds left.
Cato had one more chance but threw incomplete passes to Mason Wilfong and Jaaron Barrett, before dropping back one more time. His final pass proved costly, as Jakyron Young picked it off and took it back 42 yards for the touchdown. It was the first time the Wolves had the lead all day and it was the only time they needed it.
“Obviously I’ll think about how it ended and the thought of just taking a knee and going into overtime was definitely something I was very close to doing,” Englehart said. “I looked into the offense’s eyes and I think they wanted to go win it. Looking back on it, yeah maybe I should’ve taken a knee and went into overtime, but we didn’t do that.”
As much as the Florida Tech defense deserves credit, West Georgia’s defense didn’t make it easy on the Panthers. They held Cato to 108 yards on 12-of-33 passing. Antwuan Haynes rushed for 32 yards on 15 carries, with his long only being seven yards. Haynes did catch one ball for 32 yards and that was enough to make him the Panthers leading receiver for the day. Frazier had four catches for 30 yards.
The loss spoiled the Panthers senior day and homecoming festivities, as both were celebrated Saturday. We wish the outgoing seniors the best of luck in their future endeavors.
For more info: West Georgia @ Florida Tech Box Score
The Panthers close out their 2017 season next Saturday at Delta State. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. and will be streamed on ESPN 3. Jerry Durney and Paul Van Scott will be on the radio call, beginning with the pregame show at 2:30. You can catch them on 89.5 FM, WFIT.org or the TuneIn Radio app.