MELBOURNE, Florida –The Florida Tech Panthers got an up-close view of the type of football program they are aspiring to become when No. 16 West Alabama rolled into town Thursday night for the NCAA Division II Game of Week, shown live nationally on CBS Sports Network.
Though the Panthers would fall to the defending Gulf South Conference champions 45-3, FIT head coachSteve Englehart saw plenty of positives for his first-year team to build upon in the GSC opener for both teams.
“I’m still proud of our guys,” Englehart said. “The score doesn’t look real good, but I know that we’re not far off. We’re really not that far off.”
West Alabama, which was coming off a two-point loss to McNeese State (which opened the season with a 32-point win against South Florida) showed plenty of offensive firepower in this one. Running back Javae Swindell ran for a 76-yard touchdown on the game’s second play and finished with 170 yards and two touchdowns on just 10 carries.
The Tigers had 637 yards of total offense, including 389 yards on the ground.
However, FIT had its share of moments in front of a national television audience as well.
* KickerBrion Ashley nailed a 29-yard field goal on the final play of the first half for his fifth field goal of the season. The freshman has now scored in all three games Florida Tech has played. Ashley also punted well Thursday night, pinning the Tigers down inside their 20 three times.
*Jake Holsinger blocked a West Alabama punt.
*Tyler Rosenblatt intercepted a pass by West Alabama’s Gary Johnston in the end zone and returned it 32 yards. The pass was tipped by FIT’sManny Abad.
* Return manDavis Fluker had a 32-yard kickoff return.
* Wide receiverXavier Milton had four catches for 79 yards, including a 47-yard reception near the end of the first half to help set up the Panthers’ only score.
*Chris Stapleton had 11 tackles while Trai Cadore had eight and Justin Arcune had eight.
“There were a lot of positives,” Englehart said. “I don’t think the scoreboard shows, really, how good our football team can be.”
To get there, the Panthers are going to have to solve a few problems, particularly on offense where they were able to move the ball well all the way up to their opponent’s 30-yard line when the drive would stall.
That was the case on FIT’s opening drive when the Panthers moved the ball into West Alabama territory before the drive stalled out and Ashley was forced to punt.
Later, FIT would drive to the Tigers’ 25-yard line, but turned the ball over on downs after an incomplete pass and failed quarterback run on fourth-and-1.
“We’ve got so much talent on this team, it’s just (a matter of) putting it all together,” said junior co-captainRamsey Sellers. “We’ve just got to figure out a way to gel. We’ve got to. There’s just too much talent for us not to put up any points.”
The Panthers (1-2), who will travel to play Delta State next Saturday, got a scare at the end of the first half when quarterbackSean Ashley was hit while delivering what would be a 47-yard pass to Milton and landed on his shoulder.
Bobby Vega played the second half at quarterback for the Panthers, withDan Masteller getting in for a few plays as well.
West Alabama led 14-0 at the end of the first quarter and 28-3 at halftime. But as Englehart pointed out, the Panthers certainly had their chances to generate some offense in the first half, but came up short.
Though the Panthers have quite a young team, neither Englehart or Sellers were worried about what Thursday’s loss would do to the team’s psyche.
“I think we can bounce back for sure,” Sellers said.
Englehart said he thinks the Panthers are a resilient bunch.
“They know they’ve got to get better, but they also know they played one of the best teams in the country tonight,” Englehart said. “… We caught a team that’s a dang juggernaut right now on a bad night. We just didn’t tackle them very well. That was the biggest thing. (But) there were a lot of positives. We’ll get better.”
FIT and Delta State will kick off at 7 p.m. ET next Saturday in Cleveland, Miss.
By Carl Kotala of FIT Sports