ROME, Ga. — They were 3.4 seconds away from coming up with a win in a game that saw them use a lot of heart to get into that position.
Instead, the Shorter Hawks left the cold and wind-swept field at Barron Stadium heartbroken.
After putting together a go-ahead drive with less than two minutes away and scoring what appeared to be the winning touchdown with just over 25 second left to play, the Hawks became the victim of a successful “Hail Mary” pass when visiting Florida Tech scored on a 41-yard pass play as time expired to hand Shorter a 34-30 Gulf Coast Conference setback Saturday.
The loss, Shorter’s fourth straight, gives the Hawks a 3-4 overall record and a 1-4 conference slate heading into their final road game of the season next week when they head to Florence, Ala., for a GSC battle with No. 3-ranked North Alabama.
They make the trip, however, after having suffered an inconceivable ending in a game that saw the Hawks all but dominate the first half against a high-powered Florida Tech squad and match the Panthers point-for-point in the final two quarters before FIT turned in the game-winning shocker.
Following an FIT touchdown with 1:48 to go that gave the Panthers a 28-24 lead, Shorter put together a textbook 2-minute drill, marching 73 yards on eight plays -a 24-yard fourth down pass from senior quarterback Eric Dodson to sophomore receiver Trey Lawhorn kept the drive alive – with Dodson taking the ball the rest of the way broke out of the pocket and raced up the left sideline to score from 34-yards out.
And although the extra point missed its mark, the score gave the Hawks a 30-28 lead with just 25 seconds remaining. As it turned out, Florida Tech (6-3, 3-2) used every bit of the time left. After setting up shop at their own 46 – the Hawks had to kick off at their own 20 after they were flagged for celebrating off the bench following the touchdown -the Panthers went to work and worked their way down to the Shorter 41.
But with 3.4 seconds showing on the clock, FIT came up with the backbreaker when quarterback Mark Cato lofted a high pass into the back of the end zone where Xavier Milton had worked his way behind Shorter’s prevent defense and hauled in the ball for the game winner – it was his third touchdown catch of the day – to leave the Hawks in shock.
The wild ending closed out a game that was perhaps the most complete game – save for the final play – Shorter has had this season.
Although the opening quarter went scoreless, the Hawks gave a hint that they came ready to play as Shorter all but controlled the first stanza outgaining the Panthers 123-42 and held the ball for all but four minutes of the period.
That included a drive the Hawks started in the final minute of the first quarter, one that continued into the second 15 minutes as Shorter proceeded to put together a 12-play, 65-yard drive that ended when Kenny Langford handled a stiff crosswind and split the uprights from 27 yards out to give his team a 3-0 lead with 8:55 remaining in the first half.
Just as it seemed that Florida Tech was poised to respond to the score, the Shorter defense rose to the occasion when FIT’s Xavier Milton hauled in a pass into SU territory but fumbled the ball away and into the hands of Santavious Bryant.
Thanks to a penalty on the Panthers after the play, Shorter set up shop at the FIT 40 and from there the Hawks went the distance with Kirk Wilson taking a pitchout to the left side and covering the final three yards to reach the end zone to cap the seven-play scoring drive.
Langford converted the extra point after the touchdown that snapped an 11-quarter drought for Shorter and gave the Hawks a 10-0 halftime advantage. It was the first time that Florida Tech had been held scoreless in a first half this season.
The Panthers, however, wasted little time erasing the deficit when the second half began as FIT scored on their first two possession of the third quarter, the first coming on an 18-yard TD run by Gary Holmes and the go-ahead touchdown coming when Cato and Milton teamed up for a 3-yard scoring toss that gave the visitors a 14-10 lead heading into what would turn out to be a wild fourth quarter.
Shorter opened the final 15 minutes closing out a 78-yard scoring drive when Dodson scored from five yards out that put the Hawks back in front, 17-14, but FIT answered when they drove the ball the other way and regained the advantage on a 42-yard scoring pass from Cato to Milton.
Still, the Hawks had an answer when on their next series mounted a 78-yard march down the field that ended when Dodson found sophomore Bruce Clark open for a 26-yard touchdown pass that allowed Shorter to go back in front, 24-21, with 6:12 to go.
But that lead was also short-lived as FIT once again did what it had to do, this time turning in a 12-play, 84-yard time-consuming series that was capped when Cato hit Gabe Hughes for an 8-yard touchdown pass with 1:40 left in the game.
That set the stage for what appeared to be Shorter’s game-winning drive and eventually Florida Tech’s game winning pass on the final play.
The Hawks, who outgained FIT 219-110 in the first half, finished the afternoon rolling up 431 yards as Shorter produced a pair of 100-yard runners for the first time this year as freshman Aki Coles led the team gaining a career-high 116 yards on 16 carries while Dodson rushed for 103 yards on 15 totes.
Dodson also had his best passing outing of the season, competing seven or 12 passes with one interception for 98 yards and the touchdown.
The Panthers, who entered the game as one of the top offensive teams in the GSC, wound up gaining 450 total yards with their passing game doing most of the damage as Cato finished the game completing 18 of 31 passes for 285 yards and four touchdowns and Milton serving has his top target as the senior had 10 receptions for 168 yards and the three TDs.