The Florida Tech Panthers overcame a one-hour, 35-minute lightning delay, and an 18-point deficit on Saturday, beating the 19th-ranked West Florida Argonauts 30-28, bringing the Coastal Classic trophy to Melbourne for the first time in the three-year history of the rivalry.
West Florida (5-3, 3-2 GSC) scored a late touchdown with 1:16 left in the contest and got the onside kick, only to see the Panthers come up with what seemed like their 10th big play of the day on defense, when Amani Peoples came up with a sack, and the Panthers recovered the ball at the West Florida 41.
“Proud of our guys,” said Panthers head coach Steve Englehart in his postgame interview with Jerry Durney and Alfredo Muente on WFIT 89.5. “It feels good to finally get a win against this team because ultimately, we were the better team the last two years, in my opinion. We were the better team and we handed them the game the last two years.”
The Panthers scored 27 unanswered points en route to the biggest comeback in Florida Tech program history. Quarterback Trent Chmelik finished the day 17-for-30 for 256 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Antwuan Haynes was a workhorse, carrying the ball 29 times for 118 yards. Romell Guerrier had his fourth 100-yard receiving game of the season, catching six balls for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
The Panthers (6-2, 3-2 GSC) found themselves in trouble early, as on the third play of their first offensive possession, Chmelik threw a ball that ended up in the hands of UWF’s David Richardson, who took it back 17 yards for the pick-6 and a 7-0 lead for the home team with 13:07 left in the opening quarter.
As he has all year, Chmelik shrugged the mistake off and led the Panthers on a 16-play, 83-yard drive that was highlighted by a David Bryant 24-yard run early in the possession and catches by Terrance Bynum and Guerrier for 13 and 14 yards respectively. The Panthers got the ball to the two before Englehart called on his field goal unit. Trey Schaneville was good from 20 yards out, capping a drive that took 8:07 off the clock.
It didn’t take West Florida long to answer, as West Florida quarterback Sam Vaughn went deep on the third play of the drive and found Ishmel Morrow, who took it 72 yards for the touchdown, giving the Argos a 14-3 lead with 3:31 left in the quarter.
“Look, we had a pick-6 to start the game,” said Englehart. “We give up a bomb on a 3rd-&-2 where we’re in an all-out zero blitz, and they check into it, they throw it to one of their good wide receivers and he beats our guy.”
The Panthers defense would come up big on Saturday, forcing five turnovers. The first would come on the next UWF possession, when Karenz Stephens came up with an interception deep in FIT territory, at the nine-yard line.
The Panthers were forced to punt from deep in their own end and the Argos took advantage as Antoine Griffin returned a 45-yard Kyle Gullikson punt 61 yards for a touchdown, giving the Argos a commanding 21-3 lead with 12:08 to go in the first half.
After Florida Tech came up empty on their next drive, the defense would pick up the slack. With UWF in Florida Tech territory, Vaughn would be picked off by Tyrone Cromwell, who ran the ball back 32 yards and had an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty tacked on to the end of the return. Unfortunately, the Panthers were unable to get anything out of the ensuing drive.
Video credit: Alan Zlotorzynski of Space Coast Daily
A Gullikson punt pinned UWF at their own 11 and on the fourth play of the drive, Richard Leveille sacked Vaughn for a loss of six, causing him to fumble. Leveille picked it up and ran it the final five yards for the score and the Panthers were back in it at 21-10, with 4:57 to go in the half.
The Panthers would force a punt and get the ball back, putting together an 11-play drive and giving Schaneville a chance at another field goal, with 10 seconds left. He made the initial 37-yard kick, but West Florida iced him just before the kick, by calling timeout. That would prove to be a good move, as Schaneville did not make the second kick. Vaughn would take a knee and the Argos would go into the locker room up 11 points.
Coach Englehart talked about what he said in the locker room.
“It was just about telling our guys, listen, they’ve really only gotten three things on us, and they were mostly self-inflicted,” he said. “We can correct those. They didn’t do anything that said they could really move the ball on us or stop us. We just went in there at halftime and knew we were gonna grind it out.”
West Florida missed a field goal on their opening drive of the third quarter and the Panthers had good field position at their own 34. Brian Spurgeon‘s 43-yard catch took the ball down to the 10, and two plays later, Chmelik found Guerrier for the touchdown, and all of a sudden, it was 21-17.
The Argos went three-and-out on their next possession and the Panthers went on a nine-play, 63-yard drive that culminated in another Schaneville field goal attempt. This one was from 33 yards and despite falling down during the kick, he got the ball just over the crossbar, closing the gap to one, 21-20, with 4:19 left in the third.
After forcing another punt, the Panthers offense bridged the end of the third and the start of the fourth with an 11-play, 69-yard drive that finished with Schaneville hitting a 32-yard field goal and giving the Panthers their first lead of the day, 23-21, with 11:23 to go in the game.
“I can’t wait to see those on film because I didn’t watch either one of those,” said Englehart of the field goals. “I decided not to watch field goals anymore,” he said.
The score stayed that way until there was 5:49 left in the game. Chmelik threw a deep ball on the opening play of the drive and found Guerrier for 79 yards and the touchdown.
If you’re looking for a play of the game, that was it for Englehart. “We talked as an offensive staff on the sideline and said let’s take a shot right here,” Englehart said. “We were running the ball and running the ball and we put Romell as the outside receiver in that formation, which usually he’s not, and get a little play-action and throw it to him.”
It looked as though the Panthers put this one away on the Argonauts next possession when Vaughn was picked off by Dezmond Morgan at the Florida Tech 45. Morgan ran it back and initially it looked like he had a touchdown, but the ball ended up being spotted at the 41 of UWF, after a holding call against Florida Tech from the spot of the foul. That was key, becuase the Panthers kept the ball, as the hold occured after the pick.
The Panthers had 5:17 to work with and took 2:30 of that off the clock, before turning the ball over on downs.
Vaughn went to work and took his team 70 yards in seven plays, with a 16-yard touchdown to Kevin Grant closing the gap to 30-28 with 1:13 to go.
That’s when West Florida recovered the onside kick, only to fumble away their comeback chances moments later.
“We darn near handed it to ’em again with us not getting the onside kick,” Englehart said. “It was in our hands, it was in our stomach and all we had to do was fall on it and it squirted out.”
Luckily, Peoples made the play to cause the fumble and the Panthers were able to sneak out of Pensacola with their biggest win so far this season.
For more info: Florida Tech @ West Florida Box Score
The Panthers finished with 196 yards rushing and 452 yards total. The defense held West Florida to 242 total yards in what Englehart called a great defensive effort.
“When you talk about getting five takeaways and we just never let them get the big type of plays on us,” he said. “Defense has done a great job all year and I think they had a little bit of redemption from last week against Valdosta State and they came out here and really wanted to prove it.”
This was a total team effort by the defense, as J.T Hassell led the team with just five tackles. Morgan and Jimmy Hinel had four each, and there was a slew of Panthers with at least two tackles.
Next up for the Panthers will be a date with 5-3 West Alabama, who missed on a 2-point conversion against undefeated West Georgia on Saturday, losing 25-23 to the Wolves. The game will be played at Tiger Stadium and will be the GSC Game of the week on ESPN3. Kickoff is set for 4:00 p.m.