BELTON – Perhaps Belton enjoys playing it close, because after a two-week hiatus from nail-biting finishes, the Tigers sent their fans to the edge of seats again Friday night.
Belton turned to its rushing attack in the second half of a grinding District 8-6A slugfest against Killeen, and Tigers quarterback Connor Carothers made the right read, picked up blocks and scored an 8-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left that survived the Kangaroos last-ditch effort for a 28-21 victory at Tiger Field.
“The defensive end (went toward) the running back and I got a good block at the end by my receiver (Anthony Fairbanks),” Carothers said of the read-option play that calls for a handoff or the QB keeper, soon after nodding with a grin when asked if he knew he was going to get to the left, front pylon for the eventual game-winning points.
Carothers might not have had a doubt in that moment, but the game hung in the balance in the second half after Killeen tied it at 21 with quarterback Marcellus Johnson’s 3-yard TD scamper with 4:41 to go.
The Tigers (4-2 overall) prevailed, though, for their fourth consecutive triumph that vaulted them to an all-important 2-0 in district after their fourth game decided by seven points or less. Belton, which won its previous two games by a combined 87-42, is 2-2 in those much-closer contests and heads into its bye week with confidence.
“I wasn’t really pleased with our first half but the sign of a championship football team is resiliency. And they were resilient and came out in the second half and executed,” Belton head coach Sam Skidmore said.
For the second straight week, halftime adjustments were needed to get Belton over the hump. Last Thursday it was defensive in nature in what turned into a rout of Harker Heights. On Friday, tweaks too the rushing facet proved vital.
So, too, were a pair of fourth-down stops by Belton’s defense, one of which came on fourth-and-1 from the 2 on the first play of the fourth with Belton leading 21-14.
“There’s nothing better than running the ball. That’s the best part of football in my opinion,” Belton offensive tackle Jacob Lovell said. “We made some corrections at halftime and went out there and executed, and did everything we could to run the ball. Because if you can run the ball, you can win.”
Belton ran the ball 28 times in the second half, including 13 times on a 14-play, 66-yard drive that finished with running back Darren Rector reaching the end zone from 6 yards for Belton’s 21-14 advantage at 4:13 of the third.
The Tigers game-winning drive – nine plays, 50 yards – included eight rushes and one key third-down pass from Carothers to Marshall Fish. Rector finished with 122 yards on 27 carries and Carothers (11-of-16 passing, 112 yards) added 60 yards on 10 attempts as the Tigers piled up 222 yards rushing through 48 touches.
“Offensive line came up huge. We were just pounding the ball,” Skidmore said. “Very proud of our kids, and it’s huge to be 2-0 going into the bye.”
For the first time this season, Belton didn’t create a turnover and at times the Tigers defense had its hands full with Killeen’s speedy receivers, elusive running backs and the 6-foot-3, 200-pound dual-threat QB Johnson, who finished with 116 yards rushing and 193 yards passing.
But the two fourth-and-1, second-half stops helped matters, and the Kangaroos (2-3, 0-1), who had just one play of more than 40 yards, closed with 376 yards in all.
“We feel like we have to be able to get one yard. So we are going to take our shot. Sometimes we’ll make it, sometimes we won’t,” Killeen head coach Neil Searcy said. “I was proud of the way my kids played and the way they fought. If we give that kind of effort for the next five weeks in our district, we’re going to be right where we want to be.”
D.J. Dormeus pioneered Killeen’s early lead, taking the opening kickoff 75 yards to Belton’s 25 and six plays later catching a 13-yard touchdown pass.
The Tigers’ return team also was up to the task as Garrison Vaughn returned the ensuing kick into Killeen territory. It took Belton four plays to cover 43 yards, with the final 8 on the TD run by Rector at 8:47 of the first.
More special teams fireworks from Belton in the way of Denver Holman’s 34-yard punt return had the Tigers in position to take their first lead, but Willie McGee intercepted Carothers, who had completed his first six passes, in the end zone and brought the gift back to the Kangaroos' 30-yard line.
Johnson and Killeen marched 70 yards in eight plays and Johnson quarterback glided around defenders 24 yards for a TD and the Kangaroos’ 14-7 lead at 8:03 of the second.
Holman’s 37-yard punt return gave Belton’s offense a short field to work with, and the Tigers tied it with Vaughn tracking down Carothers’ fade pass to the back, right corner of the end zone for the tying TD 3:38 before halftime.