The Early Longhorns couldn’t hold their halftime lead and dropped Friday night’s ballgame in Merkel 48-14.
The Badgers (5-4, 2-2) used a powerful ground game to outgain the Longhorns (3-6, 1-3) 416 yards to 210 on the night. Speedy running back Jonah White picked up 168 yards and two touchdowns on just six carries for Merkel, while quarterback Ryan Trompler carried Early’s load with 63 rushing yards and 147 yards through the air. Trompler ran for one touchdown and threw for another, and threw two interceptions in the second half.
Early took the ball to begin the game and drove from its own 32 yard line. Displaying a new commitment to their signature spread passing attack, the Longhorns attempted short passes on the first five plays of the game, completing four of them.
A completion to Jesson Tarrant put the Longhorns in Merkel territory, and Early drove into the red zone plays later. But after two incompletions brought up a fourth-and-five from the 18, the Longhorns tried to gain the first with a Trompler keeper up the middle. He was stuffed after a short gain, giving Merkel possession at its own 15.
The Badgers appeared to be in trouble when, after driving across midfield, a holding penalty brought up a second and 18. White, however, took his first handoff of the ballgame and promptly picked up the first down and then some — dragging several Longhorns with him into the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown to open the scoring.
Early’s next possession was a three-and-out, but the ‘Horns didn’t stay on defense for long. Merkel running back Brady Bilbrey fumbled the drive’s second handoff right back to the Longhorns, who took over at their 23. When the first quarter expired, Early was facing a fourth and one in its own territory. Head coach Blake Sandford elected to go for it, and the gamble paid off handsomely — Trompler took the first play of the second quarter 68 yards for a game-tying score.
The Longhorns pulled ahead on their next drive, which was capped with another clutch play when Trompler, facing third and 12, dropped a picture-perfect pass over the shoulder of a double-covered Rowdy Elkins over the middle for a 44-yard score. The extra point made it 14-7 Early, and the ‘Horns carried that lead into the half.
But Merkel’s onslaught started as soon as the third quarter began. Early kicked off to begin the half and promptly allowed Zach Owens to return the ball 70 yards for a touchdown. Merkel missed the extra point but was right on Early’s heels, 14-13.
The Longhorn offense picked a bad time to sputter, punting the ball away on consecutive possessions to begin the half. Merkel, meanwhile, scored touchdowns on four straight possessions. The Badgers went ahead and converted a two-point try to normalize the score, 21-14, with 5:18 left in the third. When the quarter ended Merkel had pulled ahead 28-14.
Trailing by 21 early in the fourth and facing a last-ditch drive, Early took the ball at its own 26. After an incomplete pass, Trompler dropped back again and, forced to scramble, zipped the ball towards Tarrant, his checkdown option on the right flat.
The ball careened off Tarrant’s hands and into the arms of Owens, who returned the ball 30 yards for the game-sealing score.
Early returns home for a final district contest against Comanche (8-1, 4-0) on Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m.