Sep. 3—Ninth-ranked Harding pulled a fast one on the East Central University football team during their Great American Conference battle Thursday night inside Koi Ishto Stadium.
The Bisons, well-known for their ground-and-pound, clock-eating, triple-option attack, saw new freshman quarterback Keylon Cole throw three touchdown bombs against the Tigers en route to a 29-12 victory.
Harding, ranked No. 9 in the latest AFCA Preseason Top 25 Coaches Poll, starts the season at 1-0 on the year, while the Tigers fell to 0-1. The game was delayed by 30 minutes due to lightning in the area.
"Our guys played their tails off. Harding is a great team," ECU Interim head coach Kris McCullough told The Ada News following the game. "They are what they are. They're ranked No. 9 in the country for a reason."
Just how rare was that lethal HU pass attack that was on display Thursday night? It was the first time in 12 seasons that a Harding quarterback threw three touchdown passes in a game.
"I'm proud of the defense's performance. We just can't get beat over the top three times to a triple-option team," McCullough said. "We didn't do a great job on the back end (seeing those plays develop) ... and they got us a couple of times."
It was the ECU defense that kept the Tigers within striking distance until the Bisons finally pulled away late. East Central forced four HU fumbles and recovered three of those. Through three-plus quarters, the only way Harding found its way into the end zone was through the air.
"They gave us a chance over and over again," McCullough said.
The Tigers struggled to get any consistency going on offense, especially in the running game where the stout HU defense limited ECU to just 14 total rushing yards.
East Central quarterback Kenny Krncir was solid throughout the game but could never hit a big strike the offense needed. He completed 20-of-33 passes for 147 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. He was also sacked twice and ran for his life on several occasions.
"We have to do a little better offensively. We have to be able to run the ball to get some pressure off Kenny's back," McCullough said.
Harding's first score came after the ECU defense had forced the Bisons into a 4th-and-6 situation from the Tiger 32.
HU tailback Zach Smith, raced out of the backfield and made a beeline toward the end zone where Cole found him open at the 3 for the easy catch and run 32-yard score. Ennis Grant kicked the PAT and Harding led 7-0 at the 7:31 mark of the first quarter.
East Central cornerback Keonte Lusk recovered a fumble forced by teammate Ke'Von Curry and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that followed set up shop for the Tigers the HU 44.
That turnover led to a 27-yard field goal by Alexis Lopez that trimmed the Harding advantage to 7-3 at the 11:21 mark of the second period.
The Bisons immediately answered with their biggest pass play of the night. HU receiver Kage Citty got behind the ECU defense, made a juggling catch on a ball that was thrown a bit short and still outraced a couple of Tiger defenders to the end zone for a 56-yard touchdown. Another PAT by Grant put the visitors on top 14-3.
With time running down in the second quarter, the Tigers took advantage of a six-yard botched punt by Harding that gave ECU the ball at the HU 35
East Central quickly got the ball near the goal line.
After three straight timeouts — the first by ECU and the next two by Harding — with 19 seconds left in the first half, the Tigers faced 3rd-and-1 from the 3. Hrncir was bottled up quickly and thought about trying to run the ball into the end zone. Just before he was caught for a sack, Hrncir flipped the ball to receiver La'Quan Wells for a 3-yard touchdown.
Devonte Manning blocked the ensuing PAT kick, but the Tigers were still easily within striking distance at 14-9 at halftime.
Following the break, Harding went back to its bread and butter ground game and drove from its own 25 to the ECU 33. But Cole turned to the air again and this time found Citty once more for a 33-yard scoring strike and the visitors had built a 21-9 cushion at the 9:52 mark of the third period. Cole finished the game 3-for-6 for 121 yards.
The Tigers answered with a nice 14-play drive that made it to the HU 18 before settling for another Lopez field goal — this time from 36 yards out — that cut the ECU deficit to 21-12 with 6:47 left in the third quarter.
"We didn't capitalize. We had a couple of red-zone appearances where we kicked field goals instead of touchdowns and you can't do that and win the big ones," McCullough said.
Late in the fourth quarter, Harding got the ball deep in ECU territory after the Tigers had turned the ball over on downs. Cole crashed into the end zone from the 1 — it appeared he just got the ball to cross the goal line — and a two-point run by A.J. Brown was good. The final score of the contest put the visitors on top by 17 with 6:36 left in the ballgame.
Will Fitzhugh was the top rusher for Harding with 49 yards on 14 attempts. The Bisons ended with with 219 total rushing yards.
Hrncir completed 20-of-33 passes for 146 yards and the one score. Neither quarterback threw an interception.
"These guys are resilient man. I've never seen after a game, guys respond so positively. I know that sounds crazy after a loss but these guys are family. They know the long-term goal is," McCullough said. "I'm proud of the way they played."
East Central returns to action on Sept. 6 at at Arkansas Tech University. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. inside Thone Stadium in Russellville, Arkansas. The Wonder Boys dropped a 41-34 decision to host Southeastern in Week 1.