By Tony Adams
The Belton Tigers had the opportunity to break a portion of the four-way gridlock for third place and create a three-way tie for second place with idle Harker Heights.
But to do that, the Belton needed to beat the Ellison Eagles at Tiger Field last Friday night.
The Tigers came back from a pair of early deficits and third quarter tie to beat the Eagles 56-35 on Senior Night, as 40 Belton senior players celebrated a victory on their final home game.
With the Tigers win, a Killeen win over Copperas Cove 28-16 and Midway win over Shoemaker 52-7, Midway wins the District 8-6A championship at 5-0. Harker Heights, Belton and Killeen are tied for second with a 3-2 record, Copperas Cove and Ellison are tied for fifth at 2-3 and Shoemaker’s season ended with an 0-6 record.
Carl Robinson III threw the ball over the place in the game and guided the Ellison offense to the Belton 41 on the first drive. Alex Aaron and Garrison Vaughn dropped Robinson for a five-yard loss, leading to a shared sack between CJ Jones and Jacob Chastain. It forced the Eagles to punt.
Belton could not move the ball in the first drive and Peyton Mansell boomed a 64-yard punt, which was downed at the Ellison 4.
The Eagles scored on a 12-play, 96-yard, 4:29 drive with Robinson connected with Jyaire Shorter for a 13-yard touchdown pass. Morgan Button’s point-after gave Ellison a 7-0 lead with 2:06 left in the first quarter.
Belton went three-and-out, punting the ball back to Ellison. The Eagles put together a 9-play, 60-yard drive that Belton held Ellison up at Tigers’ 6-yard line. Button’s 23-yard field goal put the Eagles up 10-0 with 9:22 to play in the first half.
The Tigers finally got on track on the ensuing drive. Starting at the Belton 32, Bryce Julian had runs of 15, 5, and 17 to get the Tigers into Ellison territory. Mansell’s 27-yard pass to Weston Lucas set up his 4-yard touchdown strike to John Taggart. Nyle Tabat’s extra-point drew the Tigers to within three points of the Eagles with 6:46 to go in the first half.
Jones, Chastain and Clayton Blank helped throw the Ellison offense in reverse on the next drive and forced another punt.
On the second play of the next Belton drive, Mansell threw a bomb down the right sideline and Logan Collins made an excellent catch at the Ellison 21 for a 43-yard gain. Davion Peoples finished the drive with a 21-yard run to give the Tigers the lead. Tabat’s extra-point made the score 14-10 with 4:50 to got in the first half.
DJ Fisher’s sack of Robinson on third down during the next drive forced Ellison to punt again. However, the punt was muffed and Ellison recovered the fumble at the Belton 34. Robinson hit Jayden Smith for the 34-yard score. Button’s point after put Ellison back into the lead with 2:41 left in the half, 17-14.
Vaughn’s 40-yard kick return set Belton up with great field position on the Belton 44. Mansell connected with Peoples for a 26-yard pass and then a 46-yard touchdown pass with 1:17 to go in the half. Tabat’s extra-point made the score 21-17.
Ellison’s final drive of the culminated in a Button 32-yard field goal end the half, with Belton taking a 21-20 lead into the locker room.
Chandler Vela’s 20-yard kickoff return set the tempo for the initial Tiger drive of the second half. Aside from an incompletion, Peoples had eight carries for 53 yards and a 2-yard touchdown with 9:14 to play in the third quarter. Tabat’s point-after gave Belton a 28-20 lead.
Vaughn picked up his fifth interception of the season on the first play of the next Ellison offensive drive and returned it to the Eagles’ 48-yard line. Peoples picked up 28 yards on the next two runs and Mansell’s 9-yard pass to Vela set the Tigers up on the 11-yard line. Peoples’ next carry went for 10 yards, but the ball was punched into the end zone for a fumble and Ellison recovered it.
The Tigers turned up the heat on the next Ellison drive, as Jones Robinson into a ill-advised incompletion and Aaron teamed with Zaki Hill to drop Shorter for a four-yard loss and force a punt.
A miscommunication on a play call resulted in an interception by Jacolby Martin at the Tigers’ 13-yard line. Robinson found X’Zavier Green for a 13-yard touchdown and Smith for the two-point conversion to tie the game at 28-28 with 3:41 to play in the third quarter.
Matt Mahler’s straight-ahead, bulldozing 20-yard kick return set the Tigers up with another prime scoring chance. The Tigers kept the ball on the ground for all 61 yards and Mansell converted a third down and three for a 26-yard touchdown. Tabat’s extra-point gave the Tigers the lead once again with 1:38 to play in the third quarter, 35-28.
Good pass pressure by John Harvey and Justin Buuck forced the Eagles into another punt. Five plays later, Mansell bolted into the secondary and into the end zone for a 44-yard touchdown. Tabat’s extra-point with 10:05 to play in the game gave the Tigers a 14-point lead, 42-28.
Buuck, Fisher and Blank threw the Eagles’ offense in full reverse on the next drive and Ellison attempted a fake punt. It was sniffed out by the Tigers’ special teams and Belton took over the Ellison 36.
Five plays later, Mansell found Lucas for a 5-yard touchdown pass. Tabat’s extra-point gave Belton its biggest lead of the night with 6:06 to play, 49-28.
Robinson picked up huge chunks of yardage through the air and scored on a pass to Quentin Walker from 16 yards out. Button’s extra-point brought the deficit down to 14 with 4:20 to play, 49-35.
Lucas recovered an onside kick attempt at the Tigers’ 48-yard line. On the next play, Mansell sprinted up the field for a 52-yard touchdown. Tabat’s extra-point gave the Tigers its final point of the night, 56-35, with 4:02 to go.
The teams traded punts and Ellison’s final drive ran out of time, as the Tigers took the 21-point win.
Belton head coach Bob Shipley was pleased with the performance.
“It was definitely a ballgame,” Shipley said. “Just when you think we have the game put away, we fumble it at the goal line. We left them in the game longer than we should have. I was really proud of the way our guys came out in the second half. I told the kids that the play of the game was the last defensive stand of the third quarter. When it was third and one, we held them back and gained a great deal of momentum. We got the ball back and put it away at that point.”
Some early adjustments needed to be made with regards to coverages and counteracting what Ellison through at the Tigers.
“They had been in a three-man front, mostly zone coverage,” Shipley said. “Then they came out in a four-man front. It was straight-man press coverage. So it took us a little while to get going and adjusted to things and got back into rhythm.”
Mansell and Peoples played well throughout the ball game, with Mansell playing exceptional in the second half. For the game, Mansell was 12-of-16 passing for 225 yards, three touchdowns and one interception to go with 10 carries for 171 yards and three touchdowns. Peoples had 18 carries for 91 yards and two touchdowns to go with two receptions for 72 yards and a touchdown.
“Peyton played well, especially in the second half,” Shipley said. “The interception wasn’t his fault. It was a freeze call, meaning we weren’t running a play. We just wanted to see the set they were in. One of our dummy signals was probably freeze and looked at the wrong guy. So it probably caught him off-guard and should have been blocking that cornerback. It’s no one’s fault. It’s just one of those things that happens like that. Dae Dae came up big again, just like he always does.”
Julian finished the night with 49 yards on nine carries. Lucas finished with 68 yards on five catches and a touchdown.
The Tigers and Eagles combined for 1,086 yards, with Ellison outgaining Belton 546-540.
The Tigers travel to Copperas Cove Friday to finish out the regular season at Bulldawg Stadium.