With or without standout wide receiver Knowledge McDaniel, Braden River High proved its balanced offense could put up points against anyone this season.
The key for the Pirates this postseason was whether their defense could stop opponents from doing so.
Braden River’s defense passed the first such test Friday night, needing a final-drive stand to preserve a 28-23 victory against Plant City in a Class 7A-Region 3 quarterfinal.
The teams combined for 21 points in the final 5 minutes, turning a comfortable 21-9 Braden River lead into a nail-biting finish secured with a stop on fourth down and less than a yard at the Pirates’ 33-yard-line.
The offense was the same old story, however: Run Brian Battie again and again.
And the junior standout more than offset the Pirates’ three first-half turnovers, including two in the red zone, and five first-half penalties. The miscues kept Plant City within striking distance until the end instead of the Pirates delivering their hoped for early knockout punch.
But Battie was unstoppable, rushing for 349 yards on 39 carries, including four touchdowns. However, the junior lost two fumbles, including one in the open field inside the 10 as he was running for a touchdown.
Later in the half, he fumbled at midfield, setting up Chris Rodriguez’ 27-yard field goal that put Plant City on the board at the 5:41 mark of the second quarter.
Both fumbles were caused by Plant City defenders punching at the ball, part of the Raiders’ focus on stopping — or at least slowing — him.
With the victory, Braden River (9-2) advances to face defending Class 7A state champion Venice in the second round for the third consecutive season.
The Pirates lost those playoff encounters and, with McDaniel in the lineup, lost 24-21 to the Indians in late September.
Braden River’s only other loss came to Jacksonville Trinity Christian, the top-ranked Class 5A team in the state and a top-50 program in the nation.
The victory also marked the second time in four seasons Braden River ended Plant City’s season: Braden River earned a 17-7 victory in the regional final round of the 2015 season.
The Pirates have won at least one postseason game in five consecutive seasons.
Though the teams met in an earlier round this time, this edition of the Pirates’ defense was just as stingy. The Pirates limited the Raiders (9-2) to 9 points through 44 minutes and their standout quarterback, Braxton Plunk to a 19 of 45 performance for 283 yards.
They did it with tight coverage on Plant City’s receivers, aided by the defensive backs’ consistent ability to time their contact with receivers.
Braden River was also able to get pressure on Plunk from the interior on obvious passing downs. Plunk entered the game having thrown for 2,326 yards, 24 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The Pirates’ Mark Davis gave Plunk his fifth interception, picking off an overthrown pass at the goal line with 1:37 left in the first half to prevent Plant City from cutting into the Pirates’ 14-3 lead before the break.
Even with Plunk, the Plant City offense, on paper, was less dynamic when compared to Braden River, which averaged more than 45 points in their eight wins and more than 40 overall.