In a football game that seemingly had an endless list of offensive highlights, it was a late defensive stand that helped lift McCallie to a dramatic 35-28 win over rival Baylor on Friday night at Heywood Stadium.
The two uber-talented teams — McCallie is the top-ranked team in Division II-AAA, with the Red Raiders third — combined for nearly 800 yards of offense. With Baylor facing fourth-and-10 at the McCallie 38 late in the game, though, three defenders closed in on quarterback Neyland Jean as he scrambled for yardage, stopping him after a 3-yard gain.
From there, the visiting Blue Tornado (7-0, 3-0) were able to run out the clock after picking up three first downs, including a conversion on fourth-and-8 with a 19-yard pass from DeAngelo Hardy to Thompson Byrd with just 35 seconds remaining.
"I believe this was the best game between these teams that I've ever seen," McCallie coach Ralph Potter said. "Neither team really made mistakes. It was just guys on both sides making play after play. There were times where we just shook our head in amazement.
"You look at the score and think nobody played any defense, but both teams played really good defense. I'm actually at a loss for words. It's going to take me a while to process all that just happened."
Like the state-ranked heavyweights they are touted to be, the teams traded blows to open the game, each scoring on its first two possessions. After McCallie opened with an eight-play, 83-yard drive capped by a B.J. Harris 7-yard touchdown run, Baylor countered with an 11-play, 80-yard march that resulted in Elijah Howard's 2-yard scoring run.
Howard, who has committed to Tennessee, later added a 73-yard touchdown catch and a 72-yard scoring run as the Red Raiders (5-1, 2-1) answered time and again. The junior finished with 146 yards on 19 carries and also caught three passes for 84 yards.
He was outdone by Hardy as the Blue Tornado quarterback totaled 339 yards, including 275 passing and three touchdowns through the air.
"What stood out to me was our resiliency," Hardy said. "It was a battle. I was in constant go mode. Give credit to Baylor, they came after us hard, but I love the way our team fought and kept finding ways to get it done against a great team."
With McCallie ahead 21-13 at halftime, Baylor opened with what would have been a 70-yard scoring run by Howard on the first play of the third quarter. It was brought back by a penalty and the Red Raiders wound up punting, but on the next series, they got the big play they needed as Howard weaved his way through traffic before sprinting in for a 72-yard touchdown.
McCallie, which outgained Baylor 460-332 in total yards, extended its lead back to eight points on the final snap of the quarter when Hardy connected with Eric Rivers on a 37-yard scoring strike that came on third-and-27. Once again, Baylor answered, needing just four plays to cover 66 yards before Jean kept around left end for a 23-yard score, then hit Gabriel Stulce in the back of the end zone for the tying 2-point conversion.
Needing to convert two third downs, McCallie was able to put together a gutsy late drive of its own, highlighted by Hardy taking a jab step forward as if he were going to run, which sucked in the Baylor secondary and allowed him to step back and hit a wide-open Harris for an 18-yard touchdown.
With Baylor looking to answer one more time — driving from its 13 to the McCallie 32 in eight plays — it was the Blue Tornado defense that stepped up to seal the program's fourth straight win in the series.
"There were several times where we could've just tanked it or put our heads down, but the kids just kept battling and that's a sign of a championship team," Baylor coach Phil Massey said. "They're an excellent team, but now we know the effort and intensity it takes from practice and every snap in a game like this, and hopefully down the road our paths will cross with them again."