For all the talent on both sides of the field — and there was a considerable amount — it was host Baylor's grit that was both most impressive and most impactful in Friday night's showdown of state-ranked Division II-AAA teams.
Each time fifth-ranked Lipscomb Academy closed within one score of tying or potentially taking a lead, the second-ranked Red Raiders answered with quick touchdown drives of their own for a 34-31 win in the East Region opener for both teams at a jam-packed Heywood Stadium. It was also a matchup of 2022 state champions, with Baylor winning the DII-AAA title last year and the Mustangs winning in DII-AA before electing to move up.
"Every time we needed a score, our guys stepped up and made plays," Baylor coach Erik Kimrey said. "Whether it was Amari (Jefferson), Cam (Sparks) or Whit (Muschamp), those guys all proved why they're big-time players. And our offensive line was unbelievable. We were a little worried about whether we could sustain drives against them, but we were able to run the ball effectively and were able to do that when we needed to."
With University of Tennessee coach Josh Heupel and assistant Willie Martinez both watching from the Baylor sideline, the highly ranked prospects for both teams lived up to their hype.
Baylor vs. Lipscomb Academy on Sept. 8, 2023
The Red Raiders (3-1), who were facing their first opponent from the Volunteer State after opening against foes from Georgia, New Jersey and New York, needed just three plays to find the end zone on the game's opening drive. After a 41-yard connection from Muschamp to Sparks, it was Muschamp buying time in the pocket before hitting a darting Jefferson for a 19-yard touchdown.
Lipscomb countered with a field goal and, after stopping Baylor on fourth-and-1, took the lead two plays later on a 37-yard strike from Tav Shaffer to Dillon Lorick. But the Baylor defense stiffened from that point to hold the Mustangs without another score until the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, junior running back Shekai Mills-Knight capped a 12-play Baylor drive with a 7-yard run to the end zone, followed by a 14-yard touchdown pass from Muschamp to Max LeBlanc.
"We knew we would get some one-on-one matchups, so we had to go win them," said Muschamp, who was 18-of-24 passing for 236 yards and three touchdowns.
After the Mustangs (1-3) — whose previous losses were to nationally ranked IMG Academy from Florida and reigning Alabama Class 6A state champion Saraland — pulled within seven early in the fourth quarter, Baylor responded in just three plays. Sparks had a 29-yard kickoff return, which was followed by an 18-yard run by Mills-Knight, who finished with 95 yards on 23 carries, and a 33-yard scoring strike from Muschamp to Jefferson.
"Lipscomb has a great defense, and Kaleb (Beasley) was a great matchup," Jefferson said of his one-on-one battle with the Mustangs cornerback who's committed to Tennessee.
Jefferson finished with six catches for 83 yards.
"The end goal was to win the game, and we knew whenever they would score to get closer that we just had to keep pushing and answer them," he added. "We have a lot of momentum now. This was a big win for us and for our confidence moving forward."
A bad snap that sailed over Muschamp's head was recovered in the end zone by the Mustangs to again close the gap to seven points, but the Red Raiders got a 32-yard run by Muschamp to set up a 34-yard field goal by Cooper Keown and extend the lead back to 10.
Lipscomb used up much of the final two minutes off the clock before scoring on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Shaffer to Lorick, but Baylor recovered the onside kick and was able to run out the final 37 seconds for the win.
The Red Raiders ended with a 368-361 advantage in total yards and won despite the costly fumble that went for a score and being held on downs in their own territory in the first quarter. Baylor's defense also got a key stop of its own, holding Lipscomb on downs at the Baylor 28 just before halftime.
"I thought we played really well defensively against a very talented offense, especially considering we put them in some bad situations at times," Kimrey said. "I really like the intensity we're playing with right now, especially on that side of the ball."
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].