The East Central football team started the first game of the Al Johnson era with a bang during a Great American Conference battle with Oklahoma Baptist Thursday night at Norris Field.
Unfortunately, the game ended with an ill-timed clang.
Senior wide receiver Trinity Benson came around from the left end, took a handoff and used an exhilarating 75-yard touchdown on ECU’s first offensive play to give the Tigers the early momentum. It was the start of a fantastic night for Benson.
However, on the final play of overtime, senior kicker Austin Wyatt’s PAT kick slammed into the right goal post, handing the Bison a dramatic 27-26 victory.
“It was exciting but not what we anticipated,” Johnson said following the game.
“OBU, all the credit to them. They did a great job, especially on third down. They have some good wide receivers and on defense, they did some good things there,” he continued. “We beat ourselves. At the end of the day, we absolutely beat ourselves.”
Benson’s big night included six catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns and 83 more rushing yards, including the highlight-reel run to start ECU’s night. He raced up the right sideline, shed a few tacklers, cut back across the middle and outran more OBU players to the end zone down the left side for the cross-country score.
“TB (Benson) had a great game, the amazing player that he is,” Johnson said.
A number of Tiger players went down with injuries throughout the contest, forcing the ECU coaching staff to reach far into the depth chart.
“There were a lot of guys out there that played their first game,” Johnson said. “We had a lot of injuries early. There were a lot of freshmen that got out there and it was too big for them.”
Penalties were also a problem for East Central. The Tigers were flagged 12 times for 133 yards, compared to OBU’s six flags for 48 yards.
“We had too many penalties. We had too many substitution errors and had to blow too many timeouts. It’s correctable if we want to do it. We can harp on it all we want, but ultimately the players have to be the ones to do it,” Johnson said.
Fatigue, according to Johnson, also might have played a part in the season-opening setback.
“Ultimately, we’re not in the shape we need to be in. When the legs go, so does the heart,” Johnson said.
OBU answered ECU’s opening score with a 41-yard field goal by Luke Wendl that trimmed the Tiger advantage to 7-3.
ECU quickly answered when senior quarterback David Cornwell, who emerged from a competitive fall battle with some of his talented teammates to earn the starting nod, lobbed a perfect eight-yard toss to Benson in the back corner of the end zone for a TD. Austin missed the PAT kick wide right, leaving ECU with a 13-3 lead at the 7:52 mark of the opening period.
Oklahoma Baptist dominated the second quarter, which saw ECU punt the ball three times.
The Bison scored on a 30-yard TD run from Tyler Stuever and then added a 10-yard TD pass from quarterback Preston Haire to receiver Josh Pettijohn with just 1:12 left before halftime. OBU carried a 17-13 lead into the break. Haire would complete 31-of-49 passes for 315 yards, the one score and two interceptions.
Benson and Cornwell connected on a 52-yard scoring play at the 7:39 mark of the third period to give the Tigers a 2017 lead.
Oklahoma Baptist responded with a 24-yard field goal from Wendl that knotted the score at 20-20.
The Tigers ended up having to punt nine times in the game and managed just 38 yards of total offense in the fourth frame.
In overtime, ECU won the toss and sent the Bison offense to the field first.
ECU linebacker Corey Williams stacked up OBU’s Stuever for a four-yard loss on the first play, but the Bison were bailed out when ECU was flagged for pass interference.
Two plays later, Stuever scored from the 6, and a Wendl extra point put the visitors on top 27-20. Stuever led the OBU ground game with 78 yards on 13 carries.
The Tigers cashed in on a 20-yard TD reverse from junior wideout Jeremiah Jefferson on third down in overtime before the ill-fated kick allowed OBU to hang on for the narrow win.
“We’re going to watch this film, and there are a lot of good things that happened,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of guys that played a heck of a game.”
Cornwell completed 11-of-29 passes for 144 yards and didn’t have an interception in his first start for the Tigers.
Two ECU running backs split time in the backfield. Junior Tyson Jones had 13 carries for 58 yards, while sophomore Reuben Armstrong added 12 carries for 75 yards.
The Tigers had two defensive players with double-digit tackles. Junior linebacker Jobe Basiru had 11 stops, while freshman cornerback Jalen Baldwin added 10 tackles.
Williams finished with seven overall tackles and three for losses, while Justin Hayden and Lynden Edwards both had interceptions.
East Central is on the road next weekend, traveling to Bethany to battle Southern Nazarene University. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.
Southeastern blanked SNU 35-0 Thursday in Durant.