by Carl Kotala
MELBOURNE, Fla. (Football) –There will be plenty of time for dramatic moments in Florida Tech football history, but it’s going to be hard to top the first one.
Quarterback Sean Ashley dove into the end zone from three yards out with 1:09 remaining to give the Panthers a 20-13 victory over Stetson University in Florida Tech’s inaugural game at Palm Bay High School’s Pirate Stadium.
“It’s a good way to start the program, huh?” a smiling Ashley said.
Oh yeah. It definitely was.
This one had it all. Florida Tech’s defense played well and got a key fumble recovery late in the game. Fullback Trevor Sand ran for 54 yards in the fourth quarter despite having to leave the field momentarily when he got sick on the sidelines.
Xavier Milton had 10 catches for 173 yards, and became the answer to a future trivia question when he became the first player to score a touchdown in Florida Tech history. Running backJarvis Gilesalso had a big night with 14 carries for 104 yards, including a big 32-yard run on the game-winning touchdown drive.
So many good things for the Panthers to remember on a night when they weren’t as sharp as they would have hoped.
“I guess we gave everyone their money’s worth,” Panthers head coach Steve Englehart said. “... I can’t be happier with the win, but I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of things that I look at tomorrow on film that I won’t be very happy with.”
For much of the night, it looked like the Panthers would be their own worst enemy. Florida Tech outgained Stetson 468-182, but committed 11 momentum-stopping penalties that kept setting the Panthers back.
A pair of Brion Ashley field goals were all Florida Tech had to show for its domination midway through the fourth quarter as Stetson pulled out to a 13-6 lead.
However, the Panthers had a couple of scoring drives left in them. The first came with 6:25 remaining when, after overcoming two false start penalties, Ashley hit Milton in the left corner of the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 13.
The joy of that moment for the 5,400-plus fans that filled Pirate Stadium looked like it would be short-lived, however, when Stetson return man Terrance Burt took the ensuing kickoff at his goal line and raced down the sideline toward the end zone for what would have been a potentially back-breaking touchdown.
Burt, however, was called for an unsportsmanlike penalty for high-stepping on his way to the end zone and by rule, the Hatters were penalized 15 yards from the spot of the foul. So instead of a touchdown, Stetson had the ball on Florida Tech 32-yard line.
Faced with a third down, Stetson quarterback Jonathan Jerozal hit his receiver, who appeared to have first-down yardage … until a swarm of Florida Tech defenders came in, the ball was stripped, and Abad came up with the fumble recovery at the Panthers’ 18-yard line.
That’s when Florida Tech turned to Sand, who carried the ball on three of the first four plays on the drive and had runs of 13, 13 and 11 yards before heat exhaustion forced him to the sideline, but only for a moment.
Giles’ big run put the Panthers on the doorstep, and moments later, Ashley took it in for the game-winning touchdown.
“I got the ball and I looked right,” Ashley said. “I saw the big hole that Trevor Sand made. I knew I was going to score. I was going to dive. I was going to get in the end zone no matter what.
“I finally got in and all the energy came out. Excitement.”
Moments later, as the game clock ran out, it was time to celebrate the first victory in Florida Tech history.
“My emotions got the best of me,” Sand said. “I’m shedding tears after the game. I don’t even know how to act. It was my first game in two years. I went out there and gave it my all and we got the victory and that’s all I could ask for.”
It certainly was a night for Florida Tech fans and players to remember. It was an electric atmosphere right from the start.
“Unbelievable,” Englehart said. “I hope it’s like this every home game because this was a real, true college football game and it was a college football atmosphere.”
Englehart had high praises for the community and the Florida Tech students as he reflected further on the atmosphere.
“I can’t say I was surprised (by the support) because it’s been phenomenal for two years,” he said. “Our community support has been absolutely great. I was so, so pleased with the students. I have to give it up to the students and give it up to the 12th man because they were loud and really got after it. We tried quieting the crowd down on offense and told them to crank it up while we were on defense, but it was their first time, too.
“We had a bunch of false starts and the noise might have been part of it. Our kids weren’t used to all of the noise. We need to work on the silent count and be ready for some of those situations because when we go to Valdosta State it’s going to be loud.”