By Angel Verdejo
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON - Saying East Texas Baptist has given Mary Hardin-Baylor fits is accurate, but also might be an understatement.
It took overtime last season for the Crusaders to put away ETBU on the road.
And one of the biggest thorns in UMHB's side is a 2003 loss to the Tigers, which cost the Crusaders a conference championship and playoff trip.
The fourth-ranked Crusaders needed a spark Saturday, and they got plenty by way of their special teams. Four different plays fueled a third quarter in which UMHB turned a four-point halftime deficit into a 54-30 win at Tiger Field.
"We were going to start rolling - we just needed that sparkplug to get us going," said Tariekus Ellis, who returned the opening second-half kick 98 yards for a touchdown. "And I feel like I made that happen with that kick return."
The return was just the beginning. It quickly helped erase a back-and-forth first half where the Crusaders (7-0, 5-0) were left chasing ETBU and dual-threat quarterback Sed Harris. The senior finished with 407 yards of total offense playing to the point of exhaustion - teammates carried Harris off the field in the game's final minute.
"He's pretty fast - everybody in the conference knows that," said Crusader linebacker Javicz Jones, who finished with a game-high 18 tackles. "He came out here and had a good game. We just had to come out and have a better one."
The Tigers had more total yards (485-438) and held the ball for more than 36 minutes to just 23:30 for the Crusaders.
Harris' running helped the Tigers build a first-half lead, as a chop block nullified a Crusader touchdown with less than three minutes left in the half. UMHB settled for a 24-yard Chad Peevey field goal and went into the break trailing 21-17.
"But I also know that every game they've played, they've started fast," UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg said. "It's been hard to contain (Harris). Teams have had a hard time and so did we, but we knew that the little sudden things that they were doing to get an advantage we would be able to adjust to and ultimately we thought we'd get control of the ballgame."
ETBU (3-5, 2-4) answered Ellis' return with a field goal to tie the game five minutes into the second half.
The Crusaders followed with another touchdown - LiDarral Bailey found Damian Davis on a short curl route, but the senior wideout outran the Tiger defense for the 45-yard score.
On the ensuing kickoff, the momentum fully swung in UMHB's favor. Peevey kicked into a strong wind, and the ball fell in the middle of the ETBU kickoff unit. Jordan Mullinnix recovered it, initially returning the loose ball for a touchdown before it was ruled down but still in possession of the Crusaders.
Bailey connected with Elijah Hudson for a 29-yard score on the next play.
Bailey threw for 116 yards, while Darius Wilson added 176 yards on the ground.
The defense then forced an ETBU punt try, with Tucker Glaske getting free and blocking the attempt.
"We had been working hard on get-offs from punt returns all week," Glaske said. "I talked to coach afterward and he said, 'Practice makes perfect.' (Special teams) was huge - second half we came out and we knew our defense needed a spark and our special teams gave it to them today."