GIBSONTON — Plant City’s high-powered passing game gets most of the attention. But the Raiders’ defense is just as responsible for the team’s unbeaten start.
In Plant City’s 24-7 road victory against East Bay in Class 7A, District 9 on Friday, the defense held East Bay to eight first-quarter snaps, three first-half first downs and 144 yards of offense overall.
"Coach (Dylan) Clark and the defensive staff did a great job throughout the week seeing what was the best way to attack this offense," Plant City coach James Booth said. "Our guys did a great job of penetrating and making it difficult on (the Indians) — forcing them to bounce outside and use our speed to rally to the tackle."
While the penetration into the backfield — almost beating the handoff on multiple occasions — yielded few tackles for loss, it effectively nullified East Bay’s interior run game before halftime.
"They were getting off the football and were just more aggressive," East Bay coach Frank LaRosa said.
That allowed Plant City (5-0) to win the battle of field position: The Raiders began their first-half possessions on their 18 (opening kickoff), 42, 45, 44 and 34. The third and fourth possessions ended in Demario Williams touchdowns: a 3-yard fade pattern in the end zone and a 42-yard hitch route.
Quarterback Braxton Plunk threw for 186 yards, giving him 1,194 halfway through the season. He completed 17 of 32 passes, though several first-half drops kept those numbers down.
"Our perimeter game wasn’t very good all game," Booth said. "I thought Braxton was throwing pretty well, but we had some opportunities we didn’t take advantage of. I thought Demario made some great catches in the first half."
When James Gordon returned an interception 30 yards late in the half (3:45 left) to build a 21-0 lead, the outcome began to crystalize. Chris Rodriguez added a 29-yard field goal late in the third quarter, finishing the Raiders’ fifth consecutive victory against East Bay (3-2). Plant City’s last loss in the district rivalry was in 2013 (19-13).
East Bay, which shut down Plant City’s interior line penetration in the second half, avoided the shutout with a six-play, 50-yard scoring drive capped by Joaquin Isidro’s 13-yard run with 10:20 left in the fourth.
"We didn’t change anything; we just had to match how physical they played us in the first half," LaRosa said of keeping Plant City out of the backfield. "But we only did it for two quarters, not four."
The Indians have lost two in a row after a 3-0 start and Friday’s game marked a three-game stretch in which its opponents are likely to enter the game unbeaten.
Up next: East Bay hosts Bloomingdale. Plant City travels to Strawberry Crest.