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Panthers Defense Dominates in 2018 Opener

Photo credit: Jerry Durney – Charlie W Johnson Stadium in Columbia, SC

The Florida Tech Panthers scored a big victory over the Benedict Tigers on Saturday, opening the 2018 football season with a 33-14 win in Columbia South Carolina. It was the first loss for Benedict at home, since 2016.

“Obviously, we came here and got what we wanted, we got a win,” said Panthers coach Steve Englehart in his postgame interview with Jerry Durney and Alfredo Muente on WFIT. “The defense played well, we had four turnovers, three interceptions. Obviously, that’s big when you can win the turnover battle like that.”

The Panthers offense struggled at times, but the defense picked up the slack in a big way and it started early with John McClure picking off the first pass that Benedict quarterback Dominique Harris threw and taking it back 48 yards for the pick six. Just like that, the Panthers were up 7-0, with 1:27 gone in the game.

That was a big play by John,” Englehart said. “He ended up with two interceptions on the day and that’s one of those newcomers that I talked about that I was really high on and he started his career off here at Florida Tech with the two interceptions.”

The Panthers were gifted two points a couple drives later when the Panthers defense forced a punt and the snap went over Mario Trejo’s head and through the back of the end zone, giving the Panthers a 9-0 lead with 8:50 left in the quarter.

After a free kick, Florida Tech quarterback Trent Chmelik took over and completed a couple short passes, before finding Romell Guerrier, who took it 49 yards down to the three. Two plays later, junior David Bryant scored his first touchdown as a Panther and the visitors were up 16-0 with 5:46 left in the opening stanza.

Benedict (0-1) answered on their next drive, as Harris got into a bit if a groove, putting together an 8-play, 75-yard drive. It was capped by a 29-yard throw to Drelon Freeman, closing the gap to 16-7 with 1:51 still to play in the first quarter.

The Panthers came up empty on their final drive of the quarter and The Tigers ended the first quarter with minus 11 yards rushing. Chmelik had 62 yards passing, thanks in large part to the long pass to Guerrier.

Florida Tech (1-0) committed a pass interference penalty and a roughing the kicker penalty to start the second quarter, but all-world defensive stud Adonis Davis caused a fumble and even though the Tigers recovered, it was a big play that took the momentum away. Davis would later sack Harris on third down and that 12-yard loss forced another punt.

Florida Tech running back Antwuan Haynes was held in check in the first half, but did have a 20-yard reception with 9:17 to go in the half. The drive also included a 14-yard catch by Brian Spurgeon, Jr. that took the ball to the 33. Florida Tech decided to go for it on fourth down, but Terrance Bynum dropped the pass and the Tigers took over on downs with 6:18 to go.

Florida Tech’s defense did their job and forced another punt. The Panthers rush forced a bad snap that bounced as it went back toward Trejo. Rather than pick it up, he kicked it on the bounce, resulting in a penalty and the Panthers took over at the Tigers 26.

Spurgeon, Jr. reeled in a 22-yard catch late in the drive, leading to a 24-yard field goal from freshman kicker Trey Schaneville, giving the Panthers a 19-7 lead with 4:11 left in the half.

The Panthers were moving the ball on their next drive, but a fumble by Haynes stopped them from adding to their lead before halftime.

After the Panthers defense held again to start the third, Spurgeon, Jr. gave the Panthers good field position with a 46-yard punt return.  The drive featured a 12-yard pass to Robert Foy and another nice catch by Guerrier good for 18 yards, down to the one. Bryant found a hole on the next play and scored his second touchdown of the night, giving the Panthers a 26-7 lead with 10:17 to go in the quarter.

After a punt from Benedict, the Panthers next drive ended with an interception. Benedict was moving the ball nicely after the interception, getting it all the way down to the six, before Adonis Davis did what Adonis Davis does, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Evan Thompson, who also had six tackles on the night to lead the Panthers. The Panthers were forced to punt on that possession.

Davis was Johnny on the spot again on the next Benedict drive, as he was able to get a hand on the pass from Harris and knock it into the air, where McClure was waiting for his second interception of the night, putting a cap on the third quarter.

It was a tough night on the ground for Haynes, who is rarely bottled up the way he was. Anyone who has watched this team over the last few years knows what he’s capable of and finally with 10:19 to go in the game, he got loose, rumbling 42 yards to pay dirt and giving the Panthers a 33-7 lead.

“After a tough day running the ball, Antwuan finally popped one off at the end. I thought Benedict’s defense played pretty well, it was hard to run the football on them” Englehart said. Haynes finished with 72 yards on 14 carries.

Daniel Welch corralled the third interception of the night for the Panthers with 7:37 left, but the Tigers bounced back nicely on the next possession when backup quarterback Phillip Brown found Freeman who got loose for an 80-yard touchdown, making it 33-14.

Nick Holm took over under center for FIT for the final 5:34. Chmelik finished the night 14-for-27 for 191 yards. He had one interception and was sacked twice, completing 51.9 percent of his passes.

“Trent’s gotta settle in a little bit, I think he played okay but he’s capable of playing a lot better,” Englehart said. “He kinda sprayed a few passes here and there, that could’ve been bigger plays.”

Holm finished 1-for-3 for 13 yards.

Things got a bit chippy toward the end of the game with Welch getting plastered on punt coverage well after the play was over. Englehart was very diplomatic after the game, saying that they can only control what they do, they can’t control the officials or the other team.

For more info: Florida Tech @ Benedict Box Score

The only real negative that stood out in this one was the 13 penalties that FIT was flagged for, totaling 142 yards. That certainly got Englehart’s attention as well.

“Way too many penalties. Keeping our composure and keeping our focus on what’s going on is something we’ve talked about a lot,” he said. “First game you always get that a little bit, the atmosphere of a game, the intensity of a game. We really gotta work on every phase.”

As you would expect, Englehart was impressed overall but said it wasn’t perfect by any means and while the defense did a lot right, he is expecting more, quickly.

“We had several guys that this was their first time playing college football,” he said. “They’ll come along, but they gotta grow up in a hurry. We have a bigger challenge next week with Newberry.”

Newberry will visit Florida Tech Panther Stadium as the Panthers open their home season next Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 p.m.