Eric Rivers was the best basketball player on the field Friday night at Baylor’s Heywood Stadium when rivals McCallie and Baylor renewed their bitter football rivalry. And, in the end, the senior guard on the Blue Tornado basketball team may have proven to be the biggest factor in this red & blue feud which dates all the way back to 1905.
In a game where all the key players lived up to their billing on both sides of the field, Rivers was unquestionably the X-factor for McCallie coordinator Joel Bradford’s game plan, catching 11 passes for 200 yards and a pair of TDs to lead top-ranked McCallie to a 35-28 win over a gutsy third-ranked Baylor squad in what may well be a preview of a game on down the line when even more marbles are on the line.
“He’s such a great kid,” said McCallie coach Ralph Potter, who has now won four in a row in the series.
“I sure am glad he decided to join us on the football field.”
Rivers was among the Big Blue spectators for games until an injury to a McCallie receiver got Rivers fitted for a pair of cleats prior to the team’s fourth game, and for the first time since he was a middle schooler. And with Baylor geared up to do everything in its power to slow the Blues rushing attack, the senior receiver knew his night had the possibility of being special.
“We had some new plays that got put into the offense this week, and to be honest, coach told me my number might get called a little tonight. I had a feeling I might find the end zone. It’s just a big win for us and the game plan was to loosen up their defense with the pass so BJ (Harris) and DeAneglo (Hardy) could do their thing,” said Rivers, who now has 23 catches for 389 yards in just four games.
Harris and Hardy both did their things too, but not to the tune they had been in streaking past their first six opponents. Harris had 119 rushing yards on 17 carries and Hardy added 63 on 16 totes, but Baylor held the rush heavy Blue Tornado to a season low 184 yards on the ground.
“Every year when we play Baylor, they switch things up on us with stuff they do on defense, but we had a game plan for it tonight, and we trusted it,” said Hardy, who passed for a season-high 294 yards on 16-of-21 passing, including 3 scoring strikes.
“They filled really fast in order to sell out on the run, so we had some room in the middle of the field on some slants. But, I don’t blame them for selling out to stop the run, but with this team, it’s a game of pick your poison. Our offensive line gave me time, and we had guys make plays,” Hardy added.
From the opening kick, this game was about players making plays, and four first-quarter touchdowns between the two D-II AAA powers kept the two sides of overflowing stands barking at each other from the start.
McCallie took the opening kick 83 yards in eight plays with Harris scoring the first of his three TDs on a 7-yard run just 3:11 into the game. Baylor responded with a big third-down conversion and later a fourth-down conversion before Tennessee-commit Elijah Howard high-stepped it in from the 4. A misses PAT left it 7-6, but things were just getting started.
The Blue Tornado used just 1:00 of the clock to go 80-yards, the big play being a short pass to Rivers who ran the first 25 yards before pitching it to Thompson Byrd who took it all the way to 2, where Harris found the end zone again on the next play.
“Coach Bradford did a really nice job calling plays tonight. It was something to watch, and hats off to the coaching staff, but we had a lot of kids executing at high level tonight, so a lot of credit has to go to them. That was a really good football team we beat tonight, and both squads did a great job on defense. You just had to take your hat off to those offenses. Sometimes, they just make plays, and we made a few more of them than they did tonight,” said Potter, who relinquished play calling duties to Bradford for the first time in his head coaching career.
Baylor played a little touché after the quick McCallie score, as Baylor quarterback Neyland Jean hit Howard in perfect stride down the middle of the field for a 73-yard pass to make it 14-13 after the first quarter, and most folks were beginning to wonder if punters would be needed at any point.
But both defenses made adjustments and began to settle in, as the squads traded punts on the first two drives of the second period. McCallie put together perhaps its most impressive drive of the night, though, after Baylor’s punt pinned them down at its own 2. Hardy completed 5-of-7 passes in driving the Blues 98-yards, hitting Rivers on a post pattern for an 11-yard score 1:28 before the half to make it 21-13 at the break.
Baylor got the second half kickoff and shifty Howard took the first play 80 yards for a score, but it was nullified for a holding call and the Red Raiders swapped punts with McCallie before Howard did it again, racing 72 yards for a score to pull it within 21-20 in the third period.
Howard was everything as advertised, stopping and going, ducking and juking his way to 146 rushing yards on 19 carries. He also caught three passes for 80 yards in a highlight reel tape good for 226 total yards and 3 scores.
McCallie responded as it did most of the evening, and again it was Hardy to Rivers on the big play to end the third period. Hardy rolled to his left on a third-and-27, and found Rivers for a 37-yard score on the final play of the period, and it was a thing of beauty.
“I’ve just told (Rivers) to get open out there, and he has done a great job with it. That play was supposed to be a go route, but he saw his defender was playing way back so he cut it short towards the middle of the field, and I found him. We have good chemistry, and credit to the line for giving us that extra time,” Hardy said of the play.
Baylor wasn’t going quietly, though. Jean hit Gabriel Stulce on a big third-down conversion for a 40-yard gain, and then took it the final 23 yards on a keeper. Jean then scrambled around long enough to find Stulce again on the two-point conversion and the game was tied with 10:55 left.
McCallie never blinked, however, converting two key third down plays, including a 33-yard pitch to Rivers on the drive to take it to the Baylor 18. After getting nothing on a run, McCallie shifted Harris from the backfield to a tight end position, and with Baylor coming hard to stop the expected run, Harris slipped untouched into the secondary where Hardy flipped to him for the winning score.
Baylor got held on downs and McCallie ran the clock out by converting a fourth-down play with yet another surprise pass, this one from Hardy to Byrd to seal the deal.
“The thing is, Baylor has a really solid defense, and we knew we had to be creative tonight. It was fun, but man, you have to credit the guys for making plays. The key is you put your trust in them when it counts, and they delivered,’ said Bradford of the game plan.
Baylor’s Jean was outstanding in the loss as well with 199 passing yards in his first taste of the rivalry after transferring in.
“It was everything they said it would be. Probably the most fun experience I’ve ever had in a football atmosphere. McCallie is No. 1 for a reason, but I think we showed we can play with anybody tonight,” said Jean.
Interestingly, the game pitted the two teams as unbeatens for only the third time in the storied rival, and with the win McCallie has now won twice in the battle of unbeatens. McCallie will take the win into a bye week while Baylor travels to Tyner next Friday.
McCALLIE 14 7 7 7 – 35
BAYLOR 13 0 7 8 – 28
M – BJ Harris 7 run (Andrew Prescott kick) (8:49, 1st)
B – Elijah Howard 4 run (kick failed) (3:37, 1st)
M – BJ Harris 1 run (Andrew Prescott kick) (2:32, 1st)
B – Elijah Howard 73 pass from Neyland Jean (Caleb Hampton kick) (1:27, 1st)
M – Eric Rivers 19 pass from DeAngelo Hardy (Andrew Prescott kick) (1:28, 2nd)
B – Elijah Howard 72 run (Caleb Hampton Kick) (8:15, 3rd)
M – Eric Rivers 37 pass from DeAngelo Hardy (Andrew Prescott kick) (0:08, 3rd)
B – Neyland Jean 23 run (Gabriel Stulce pas from Neyland Jean) (10:55, 4th)
M – BJ Harris 18 pass from DeAngelo Hardy (Andrew Prescott kick) (6:45, 4th)
M STATS B
21 1st Downs 12
35-184 Rush 30-195
294 Pass 199
478 Total 394
16-21-0 Passes 9-14-0
5-44 Penalties 7-48
3-41.3 Punts 3-41.7
2-0 Fumbles 0-0
Rushing: BJ Harris 17-119, DeAngelo Hardy 16-63, Gavin Cagle 1-4 (M); Elijah Howard 19-146, Neyland Jean 7-37, Noah Martin 2-7, Gason Carmichael 2-5 (B).
Passing: DeAngelo Hardy 16-21-0 294 yards (M); Neyland Jean 9-14-0 199 yards (B)
Receiving: Eric Rivers 11-200, Thomas Byrd 3-69, BJ Harris 2-25 (M);Elijah Howard 3-80, Mekos Baker 2-46, Gabriel Stulce 2-44, Christian Martin 1-29 (B).
Records: McCallie (7-0, 3-0 DII AAA East), Baylor (5-1, 2-1 DII AAA East)
(Contact James Beach via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @beachnut1134)