Melbourne, Fla. – The Stetson Hatters had every opportunity to earn their second victory of the season on Saturday night, spoiling Florida Tech’s coming out party.
Instead, late mistakes costs the Hatters dearly and the Panthers celebrated a 20-13 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 5,000 at Palm Bay High School’s Pirate Stadium.
“We had that game snatched away from us, and it was our own doing,” Hatters coach Roger Hughes said. “When you have a young team, you have to be able to build off this. They understand now that they can play with anyone.”
The Panthers were able to rally from what had been a 10-0 Stetson lead early in the game, scoring the clinching touchdown with 1:09 left to play on a three-yard run by Sean Ashley. One of two quarterbacks to see action in the game for FIT, Ashley led the Panthers on the winning drive after a series of Stetson mistakes.
“I am proud of our kids effort in an adverse situation, but you just can’t turn the ball over,” Hughes said. “We dropped too many passes, we didn’t execute our blocks and we never got anything going offensively. I thought our defense did a great job defending despite poor field position, but we have to be able to do something on the offensive side of the ball.”
The critical turn of events for Stetson came late in the game, after FIT tied the score with 6:25 left on a 26-yard TD pass from Ashley to Xavier Milton. The TD pass, the first for the Panthers, capped a seven play drive that covered 74 yards.
On the ensuing kickoff, Stetson’s Terrance Burt took the ball three yards deep in the end zone, brought it out up the middle and then cut to the right sideline with nothing but turf in front of him. Clear of the FIT pursuit, Burt started highstepping toward the endzone, drawing a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct and nullifying what would have been a go-ahead touchdown.
Instead, the Hatters got the ball at the FIT 32. On third and short, Jonathan Jerozal connected with Rob Coggin on a swing pass and, while fighting for first down yardage, Coggin was stripped by Manny Abad. Abad also recovered the loose ball, ending the Stetson scoring threat and setting the stage for the Panthers’ clinching touchdown drive.
“Two phases of our game were working today,” Hughes said. “We played pretty well on defense and on special teams, but we never got anything going on offense.”
By the time FIT got the ball back late in the game, the Stetson defense was running on fumes. The Panthers piled up 468 yards of total offense, running 82 plays while controlling the clock for 34:51.
Donald Payne, who led the Hatters with 15 tackles and also had an interception, said there was no doubt the defense was tired late in the game.
“We are is good condition, but we were on the field a lot more tonight,” Payne said. “We stayed together as a team and worked hard. There was a little fatigue late, but they got into a couple of formations late that we didn’t know how to lineup for. They beat us on a couple of those.”
The final scoring drive included runs of 13, 13 and 11 yards by Trevor Sand before Jarvis Giles ripped off a 32-yard run to give the Panthers a first and goal at the Stetson 1. From there FIT tried to milk off some of the clock before Ashley ran in what was the winning touchdown.
After a sloppy first quarter, the Hatters took advantage late in the period after FIT tried, and failed, to convert a fourth at one at the Stetson 45. Ryan Tentler led the Hatters on a nine-play drive that ended in an 8-yard touchdown pass to Devon Garnett with 33 seconds left in the quarter.
The TD pass for Tentler was his seventh straight to start the game. He threw for 62 yards in the first quarter, but finished with just 98 yards passing in the game.
It was Payne and the Stetson defense that turned away an FIT scoring chance in the second quarter. The Panthers got the ball at the Hatters’ 25 after a punt from the back of the end zone, but Payne intercepted a Bobby Vega pass in the end zone.
The Stetson offense responded by marching right down the field. The Hatters drove 72 yards in 12 plays before stalling at the FIT 8-yard line. James LaGamma converted from there on a 25-yard field goal to give the Hatters a 10-0 lead.
FIT came right back after the Stetson field goal and moved to Hatters’ 32 yard line in six plays. Brion Ashley, who missed on a 49-yard field goal attempt earlier in the game, this time connected as time expired to cut the Stetson lead to 10-3 at intermission.
Stetson finished the game with just 182 yards of total offense, including just 58 yards on the ground on 33 rush attempts.
“It seemed like we were not blocking correctly, and that is something we will have to learn from and get over it,” Hughes said. “They were shifting their fronts and that gave us problems.”
The Hatters now have two weeks to get ready for their next game, which will be against Birmingham-Southern on September 21. Hughes told his team after the game to remember how bad the feeling of a loss is and to turn that anger and frustration toward preparing for the next game.
“You lick your wounds for 24 hours, you watch the film and then you go back to work,” Hughes said. “That is the beautiful thing about football. When you do have a disappointment, you still have nine more opportunities to straighten things out.”