EARLY — With one game remaining before the District 3-2A Division I opener, the Early Longhorns will look to establish positive momentum Friday night — but another daunting challenge awaits in a revitalized Ballinger Bearcats football squad.
The Longhorns (0-3) defeated Ballinger (3-0) last season, and would like nothing more than to duplicate that feat at 7:30 p.m. Friday and gain their first victory. However, Longhorns head coach Brad Bowden acknowledged this year’s edition of the Bearcats — under first-year head coach Justin Wiley — are anything but pushovers.
“Ballinger is strong team,” Bowden said. “Coming into the season, I think a lot of people underestimated Ballinger. Those that did probably didn’t factor in how many injuries Ballinger had last year. Ballinger had a good team last year, but had too many injuries to overcome.”
Early, meanwhile, is looking to regroup from last week’s 34-0 home loss to Coleman. After rallying to almost upend San Saba a week earlier, Friday’s performance was not what was anticipated by Bowden.
“We didn’t play well against Coleman,” Bowden said. “Defensively, we created turnovers and with the exception of a few big plays, played fairly well. Offensively, we did a poor job all night. Our passing game was poor and that allowed them to keep a numbers advantage in the box to stop the run and bring more blitzes.”
Looking ahead to Friday night, Ballinger has not allowed more than seven points in any contest — and all three touchdowns scored against the Bearcats occurred in the fourth quarter.
Offensively, Ballinger has scored at least 39 points in all three outings and is averaging 43 points per contest. Led by quarterback Jacob Rodriguez and tailback Zach Perez, the Bearcats are averaging nearly 300 yards of offense per game, with most of those yards coming on the ground.
In Ballinger’s 32-point victory last week over San Saba — which held off Early, 20-17, the week prior — Rodriguez rushed for a career-best five touchdowns and 113 yards, while Perez chipped in 125 on the ground. Overall, the Bearcats compiled 371 yards of total offense, with 311 coming on the ground.
“Offensively, Ballinger is doing a good job of moving the ball,” Bowden said. “They have some really solid kids on the offensive line with some quick backs and that is allowing them to run the ball really well. They aren’t throwing it as much as in the recent past, but they have very capable skill kids so it’s certainly a threat.”
The Longhorns defense heads into the contest yielding 36 points and 356 yards per game, including 300 yards rushing, which plays to Ballinger’s strength. In Early’s loss last week, the Longhorns surrendered 362 total yards, with 355 coming on the ground.
Cody Morrison leads Early with 35 tackles trailed by Junior Sanchez with 22, Fidel Olalde with 16, Jake Fisher with 15 and three fumble recoveries and Brandon Moore with 14 tackles.
Against San Saba last week, the Ballinger defense yielded just 194 yards of total offense, with 130 yards coming on the ground.
Early counters with an offense that is producing eight points and 190 yards — 121 passing and 69 rushing — per contest. Against Coleman, however, the Longhorns netted a grand total of 34 yards on 44 offensive snaps.
Fisher leads the Longhorns with 161 rushing yards and a touchdown, while quarterback Cameron Denison has chipped in 59 yards and a touchdown and Chris Moreno has rushed for 30 yards.
Denison has also completed 33 of 67 passes for 346 yards with one touchdown and one interception, while Chase Riker leads the Longhorns with nine catches for 86 yards and a touchdown and Austin Isom has chipped in eight receptions for 123 yards. Other receiving threats for Early include Rowdy Johnson (5-35), Colin Walker (4-55), Fisher (3-11), Brandon Brownlee (2-28), Kellan Jackson (2-15), Ricky Corona (1-5), Charlie Tongate (1-3) and Moreno (1-1).
“Defensively, Ballinger has done a great job shutting down their opponents,” Bowden said. “For us, it is very similar to the Coleman game. We have to be able distribute the ball to different points on the field or else they will be able to overload the box stopping the run and pressuring the pass. We didn’t do a good job of that last week, so it will be a test for us to correct what we need to correct and execute efficiently on Friday.
“We have to be able to move the ball consistently. To do that, we have to be effective throwing the ball. If we keep the chains moving, and the other phases of our game continue to progress as they have, we can win the game. We know it’ll be a difficult challenge. Ballinger is playing with a lot of confidence and momentum, so it’s going to be tough to go to their field and take that away from them. However, that is something we have to be able to do in order to move forward as a team. Our kids need to be energized by trying to do what most believe we can’t do.”