The Florida Tech Panthers opened their 2016 football season Saturday, at Newberry College in South Carolina and came away with a big 42-28 victory. The win avenges a 31-28 home loss to the Wolves in the opening game of 2015, on September 5.
It was a total team effort Saturday, with the offense carrying the load in the first half and the defense coming up with five second-half turnovers, allowing the Panthers to pull away late. For much of the night though, it was a see-saw battle.
Junior Quarterback Mark Cato picked up where he left off in 2015, putting together a solid effort on Saturday. After the defense was able to keep the Wolves off the board on their first drive, Cato went to work from the shadow of his own goalposts, at the 10-yard line.
It was a good mix of run and pass on the first drive, with Senior Dalin Modican pulling in a 15-yard pass early and a run by Sophomore Antwuan Haynes, a few plays later, good for 12. Cato capped it with a 51-yard bomb to Kenny Johnston, for the touchdown with 8:40 left in the quarter.
Florida Tech (1-0) started their next drive at the one, after a 46-yard punt. The third drive of the quarter started at the 32, but both those drives came up empty.
Newberry (0-1) got on the board with their first drive of the second quarter. Starting QB Raleigh Yeldell completed passes of 12 and 15 yards on the drive, before hitting Cole Watson for 38 yards and the score with 11:48 to go, tying the game at seven.
The Panthers answered quickly, with Cato finding Romell Guerrier on the second play of the drive with a 65-yard catch and run, giving the visitors a 14-7 lead. They looked primed to add to the lead when Joe Jackson picked Yeldell off and gave Florida Tech the ball at the 19-yard line. The Newberry defense stepped up and kept the Panthers stalled there, bringing Junior kicker Zachary Leatherman in to attempt a 33-yard field goal, that he missed wide.
The Wolves then proceeded to go on a drive that lasted more than five minutes, culminating in an 11-yard touchdown pass from Yeldell to Baptiste Staggers. The extra point was missed, keeping Florida Tech ahead, 14-13.
Things got a little sloppy on Florida Tech’s next drive when they had two consecutive false start penalties, leading to a first and 20 situation. Cato didn’t panic, completing a 26-yard pass to Guerrier a couple plays later and after scampering for 21 yards with his feet, he found Terrance Bynum for 34 yards and a touchdown with 59 seconds left in the half, giving the visitors a 21-13 lead.
Yeldell and the Wolves refused to go quietly. He found running back Romelo Doctor for completions of 17 and 23 yards, Markell Castle for 25 and finished things with an eight-yard toss to Watson, with 17 seconds left. Down 21-19, the home team went for two, and Yeldell completed it to Knox Butcher.
With that, the teams headed to the locker room, capping off a first half that featured only one three-and-out for each team.
The second half got off to a shaky start on both sides. Cato was intercepted by Jimmy Holmes after it was tipped by Guerrier. The ensuing drive started at the Florida Tech 33, but Yeldell would eventually give it up when he was picked in the end zone by senior defensive back Manny Abad.
Cato put together a promising drive, highlighted by Haynes 20-yard catch. They got all the way down to the 25 of Newberry, but Cato would be intercepted in the end zone, by Rashaad Smith, wasting a 50-yard drive.
Newberry didn’t keep the ball long, as Yeldell was picked off by lineman Billy Sturgis, who tipped it to himself and went 28 yards, before being brought down. The play immediately brought to mind the old Chris Berman ‘rumblin’, bumblin’ stumblin’ line. Not because of anything Sturgis did but more because of his size and position.
It was the fourth interception in about six minutes of playing time and Cato capitalized quickly, finding Freshman tight end Kevin Purlett for the score, giving Tech a 28-21 lead with 9:05 left in the third. Another turnover was just moments away, as Dv’nn Cooks would fumble the ensuing kickoff and Jace Brown would recover for the Panthers in enemy territory at the 38.
The Florida Tech drive would go 10 plays, but they would have to settle for another field goal attempt by Leatherman. This one was good from 20 yards out and gave the visitors a 31-21 lead. Guerrier was hurt on the drive and left the game with a wrist injury.
As they had for much of the first half, the Wolves got up off the deck and answered quickly, going 90 yards in five plays, thanks to a 72-yard catch by Castle, closing the gap to 31-28.
Florida Tech would not back down, answering back with a 13 play drive and another Leatherman field goal. That gave Florida Tech a 34-28 lead with 41 seconds left in the third.
The teams traded turnovers to start the fourth, with Manny Abad forcing a fumble that was chopped out of the hands of Watson and recovered by Jake Holsinger just shy of midfield. Cato was then intercepted by LaQuan White at the Newberry 13. The Wolves weren’t able to do anything with it.
With 8:13 left on their own 46, the Panthers went to work on the clock. They ran the ball with Trevor Sand, Haynes, and Cato. A 17 yard run by Cato was the longest play and he capped it with a one-yard run, with 3:59 to go. That gave the Panthers a 42-28 lead and took 4:14 off the clock.
The Wolves went down swinging, going 70 yards on the next drive. Yeldell’s 13-yard run got the home team down to the five, but Andrew Adair stepped in front of his next pass, picking it off in the end zone. This was a few plays after Yeldell completed a 15-yard pass to Braxton Ivery, that Trai Cadore made a touchdown-saving tackle on. The Panthers went on to run out the clock and pick up the hard-fought victory.
Head coach Steve Englehart said in his post-game interview with Jerry Durney and Paul Van Scott that he wasn’t sure how severe the injury to Guerrier was, but the training staff didn’t seem to think he would miss much time. He said Bynum suffered a wrist injury as well, but did not have details.
Cato finished 17-for-35, for 298 yards. He threw four TDs and 3 INTs. Sand carried the ball 21 times for 101 yards and Guerrier had three catches for 98 yards. Yeldell had an impressive night, going 37-for-55 for the Wolves, good for 447 yards. He threw four TD’s and had four picks. He also ran for 49 yards.
Castle caught 10 passes for 181 yards and Watson had 8 for 106 yards, leading the Newberry receivers.
Florida Tech will now turn their attention to Mississippi College, who visits Melbourne on Saturday, September 10, at 7:00 p.m. It will be the home opener for Florida Tech.