Baylor is at home tonight against the team that provided its only two losses last year — state champion Ensworth.
Coming into this high school football season, Baylor adopted the 2011 season motto: “Unfinished business.”
The adversary to blame for that feeling is paying a visit to Baylor’s Red Etter Field tonight.
Ensworth is making the trip from Nashville to take on the Red Raiders at 7:30 in what is a rematch of last year’s Division II-AA state final in Cookeville. An 11-yard touchdown pass with time winding down lifted the Tigers past Baylor 28-21 last Dec. 2 and gave them their first TSSAA football championship.
“A lot of good things happened that day, and a couple of bad things,” Baylor senior Matthew Oellerich said. “We only trailed for seven seconds in the game.”
Each team is 4-0. Ensworth is 1-0 in the East/Middle Region, while the Red Raiders are coming off consecutive region victories at Father Ryan and Montgomery Bell Academy.
Adding to the retribution they seek in tonight’s game, the Raiders’ lone regular-season loss last year was 41-29 to the Tigers on Oct. 22.
“I think because last year our only two losses were against them, and losing in the state championship, that will draw a lot of attention from us,” Baylor coach Phillip Massey said. “They’re a great opponent. Playing them at home is a good spot for us, especially having two tough weeks on the road — going to Nashville and now getting to come back home.”
Baylor’s main mission defensively will be trying to contain explosive running back Cornelius Elder, a Mr. Football finalist last season as a sophomore. He torched the Red Raiders for 260 rushing yards in last year’s regular-season meeting, and one of his four touchdowns was a 70-yard punt return. They did a better job corraling him in the title game, although his 68-yard scoring run in the third quarter — part of his 127 overall — helped the Tigers start a comeback from being down 21-7.
“They pretty much look the same offensively,” said Baylor’s Wyatt McRae, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior linebacker who last year had five solo tackles and a fumble recovery in the championship game. “He’s not a large running back, but he’s really quick and sees the field really well. He likes to cut back, so we’ve got to make sure and read our keys on defense.”
Although they graduated quarterback and Mr. Football winner Jacob Huesman, the Red Raiders practically return the rest of their starting offense from a year ago. Oellerich, a 5-11, 180-pound senior who had a 34-yard touchdown catch for Baylor’s first score in the title game, has moved from wide receiver back to quarterback, where he played as a freshman.
“My big thing to look at is turnovers,” Oellerich said. “I’d like to be a little more efficient in the passing game, make better decisions, make better throws, and then make plays when we need it.
“We can’t be putting ourselves behind the chains. They’re capable of making you have big losses. We’ve got to sustain drives.”
Much of that burden will fall to the Red Raiders’ offensive linemen, which is exactly how tackles Barrett Gouger and Billy Sivley, guards Mitch Payne and Derek Green and center Chase Beard want it.
“They’re very good,” Ensworth coach Ricky Bowers said. “They’re big, strong, quick and experienced. That’s concerning. I think the strongest part of their team is an area where we’re least experienced. That’s going to be an interesting challenge for us.”
The Tigers’ one returning starting offensive lineman is junior Nicholas Brown (6-0, 260), who’s been moved to left tackle from center.
Both coaches agree the kicking game favors Baylor with strong-legged Henrique Ribeiro handling the place-kicking and comparable Andrew Priddy averaging more than 40 yards per punt. Massey hopes they can neutralize the Tigers’ return game with Elder.
“I have the same feeling of confidence I had going into the state-championship game last year,” McRae said. “We’re a good enough team to beat them.”
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.