EARLY — “I love the way our kids fought in the second half, I told them, ‘Nobody can doubt your heart, your fight in the second half, but here’s the problem, if those people come watch you practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, they might wonder what you’re practicing for, because we didn’t practice as well as we need to so we’ve got to get Saturday through Thursday better and then hit Friday night at full-tilt.’ ” – Coach Brad Bowden

The Early Longhorns looked like a different team than just seven days ago as they faced up to the challenge of an offensive and defensive line for San Saba that averaged well over 200 pounds.

Early set the tone for the game on the first series as Charlie Tongate delivered and authoritative hit on San Saba’s kickoff return man and then they held San Saba on third down to force a punt on the opening series. Although the Horns would give up a score on San Saba’s next series, the defense continued to make adjustments and as the game progressed, and Early began to find ways to limit the ground game and force the Dillos to pass.

After falling behind 7-0 with 8 minutes to play in the first period, Jake Fisher took the kickoff 2 yards deep in the end zone and returned it 41 yards to set up a first down at the Early 39. Fisher then broke free for 26 more yards and got the Horns to the San Saba 35. From there Cameron Denison connected with Chase Riker and Colin Walker through the air as the Horns drove down to the 16. The offense stalled however and Brandon Brownlee came in to put a 33-yard field goal through the uprights and close the score to 7-3 with 4:32 left in the first quarter.

The Longhorns offense struggled to get on track through the rest of the half while the defense allowed the Dillos to put up 10 more points and go into the locker room with a 17-3 lead over the Horns.

The second half would be a different story however as the Horns’ Chase Riker returned the kickoff to the 15 and from there, the Longhorns drove the length of the field. Jake Fisher continued to find holes opened by linemen Keith Clardy, Gilbert Vargas and others as he broke for runs of 15, 10, 3, 6, 19 and 8 yards and Denison connected with Riker for 6 points from 9 yards out. Brownlee tacked on the PAT and narrowed the gap to 17-10.

After a key defensive stand set up a fourth and 3 at midfield for the Armadillos, the Special Teams came in to fuel the fire as Payton Ashworth blocked a punt and the Longhorns took over with momentum on their side. It only took six plays, including a 40-plus yard catch and run by Colin Walker, and the Longhorns had first and goal. Denison punched it in on a QB sneak, Brownlee split the uprights for the PAT and with 1:14 left in the third, the score was even at 17-17.

Most of the fourth period was a defensive standoff with key stops make by Junior Sanchez and Ricky Corona to force the Dillos to punt, but one of those punts rolled all the way down to the 1 yard line of the Early Longhorns. Tough running up the middle and around the edges by Fisher moved the ball out of the shadow of the goalpost but Early was forced to punt and the Dillos took over at the Early 40.

Aided by an interference call on the Longhorn defense, the Dillos drove to a first and goal at the Early 4 but again, Dylan Powell and the defensive line would not yield and forced the Dillos to settle for a field goal and a 20-17 lead with 2:03 to play. Three points would prove to be the difference as the Horns took the kickoff and drove down to San Saba’s 16 with 8 seconds left.

Austin Isom, Riker and Brownlee were Denison’s targets on that drive but the Horns ran out of time as Denison looked for open receivers in the endzone and found none as time expired.

“Well, it was a story of two halves for us,” Bowden said. “We came out in the first half, and we kickoff and we hold them, they punt to us and we’re in good shape. Then they had that punt return for a touchdown, special teams are where the breaks are made and we got sloppy on our special teams. We didn’t play up to our potential in the first half, we went in down two touchdowns and we told them, ‘Let’s go out and find a way to win.’ We came out drove the length of the field and scored, had a stand, came back and got a chance to win and then again, special teams – we let that punt roll down to the one yard line and then we’re pinned down, we’ve got five minutes to go and drive down and score and win the ball game, but we shot ourselves in the foot a few times still almost came out of it, and even after they kicked the field goal we drove down and just ran out of time.”

Next up for the Longhorns are the Coleman Bluecats at 7:30 p.m.  Friday at Longhorn Stadium.