TAMPA - Middleton senior defensive back Victor Arboleda told his teammates one thing in the huddle: "Open the hole, and I'll make the play."
Arboleda stuck to his words with a stick the Tigers will remember for a while. His tackle of Kenny Allen at the 2 on fourth and goal with 2:58 left preserved the Tigers' 21-18 victory over Plant on Friday at Dads Stadium.
A Plant homecoming crowd appeared ready to celebrate after Tavaris Gant's 34-yard catch over Conshario Johnson made it first and goal at the 4. But Middleton held Plant to 2 yards on four rushes. On Plant's third straight attempt over right tackle, Arboleda got a clean shot at Allen.
Leading 21-16, Middleton then ran all but the final 1.4 seconds off the clock, and quarterback Cedric Harris took an intentional safety.
"I've always said defense wins championships, and I believe in our defense," Middleton coach Harry Hubbard said. "If you're going to get to that level that you are trying to get at, the defense has to get you there."
Harris rallied Middleton (3-1, 2-0 in Class 4A, District 10) after it fell behind 16-0 10 minutes into the game. He accounted for 280 yards and three touchdowns, two throwing and a 14-yard run with 10:53 left that put the Tigers in front. Middleton made numerous mistakes early. Two errant snaps on punts led to a Plant safety and Robert Marve's 17-yard touchdown pass to Gant. On the ensuing kickoff, James Robinson returned O.J. Murdock's fumble 18 yards for another score.
The turning point came late in the first half when Robinson recovered a fumbled punt at the Middleton 21. But Plant (1-3, 1-1) could not add to its 16-7 lead when Lawrence McClure's 50-yard field goal was short and returned to the 8.
Middleton then drove 92 yards, capped by Harris' 11-yard touchdown pass to Johnson with 16.4 seconds left.
Harris, who completed 17 of 27 passes for 231 yards, was 6-for-6 for 78 yards during the drive.
"That was a key time," Plant coach Bob Weiner said. "At 16-7, we had a lot of momentum. Then once we allowed them to score back at the end of the half, that took our momentum away."