published Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Hargis: Early turn of events puts Baylor in hole

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- In the game's first 14 snaps, Baylor's state championship hopes had been all but dashed.

The Red Raiders' first two possessions Thursday night ended disastrously as they turned the ball over to Ensworth on the wrong side of the 50 each time and the Tigers cashed in, needing just three pays to score two quick touchdowns. The only reason it wasn't two touchdowns in two plays was because Keshonn Carter dropped a sure scoring pass one play before Corn Elder sprinted untouched up the middle of the field for a 38-yard score.

Even after having its first possession extended by a roughing-the-punter call, then being set up with a first-and-5 on another Ensworth penalty one snap later, Baylor still couldn't pick up a first down, gaining just 1 yard on the next three plays. Facing a fourth-and-4 situation, Baylor tried a fake punt from its 45.

In their regular-season game against the Nashville team, the Red Raiders used a fake punt in the second quarter to overcome a sluggish start and kick-start the offense into high gear for what became a 28-point win. But Thursday night, the Red Raiders' trickery had just the opposite effect when Colton Jumper, who had converted the regular-season fake, was stuffed for no gain.

After Rico Watson dashed for a touchdown on Ensworth's first play after that, the Red Raiders gave it back when Matthew Oellerich was intercepted by Vanderbilt commitment Cory Batey, and Elder's scoring run looked all too easy.

That would not be the last all-too-easy score for the Tigers. And it wasn't just the early deficit, but the ease with which Ensworth scored that deflated the Baylor sideline, leaving most of those wearing red to stand in stunned silence.

"The fake was actually a miscommunication," Baylor coach Phil Massey said. "Our snapper thought he heard the fake call and snapped it to the up back, but we hadn't called for the fake, so we didn't make any yardage.

"Those first couple of possessions pretty much doomed us. To get behind a club like Ensworth by that much so early, and so quickly, some of our guys really started pressing and trying to make big plays instead of just settling in. That happens sometimes when you play an explosive team like them. They made us pay for our early mistakes."

Despite recovering from the initial shock to cut the lead in half late in the first quarter, and even with Elder, Ensworth's Mr. Football Back of the Year, leaving late in the first quarter with an ankle injury, the Tigers answered with two more touchdowns before halftime.

All four of the Tiger's first-half TDs covered more than 26 yards. Those big plays, and the big stops to open the game, helped Ensworth defend its Division II-AA title and left the Red Raiders to return home with the silver ball for a second straight year.

And while last year's heartbreaking loss was tough to swallow, this year stings just as much for Baylor because of bruised pride of a 38-point defeat.

Adding insult, Ensworth claimed the lopsided win despite Elder having the ball in his hands just twice before the injury. But in his place, fullback Watson, a 5-foot-7 senior who had missed the first seven games this season and came into the championship with just 84 rushing yards and one touchdown this season, ripped through Baylor for 221 yards and three TDs to earn MVP honors.

"Rico is a guy who we have a lot of confidence in once he's healthy," Ensworth coach Ricky Bowers said. "He stepped up when we needed him most, and really those first couple of series set the tone and gave our kids a lot of confidence."

Baylor not only must replace nine senior starters on offense and seven senior starters on defense but will have to somehow find a way to erase the memory of three losses in the last four meetings to an Ensworth team that doesn't appear to be going away any time soon.

about Stephen Hargis...

Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 23 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including nine in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation at the Associated ...

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