Coyotes seek first trip to AT&T Stadium as pursuit of eighth championship continues

RICHLAND SPRINGS — The No. 1 Richland Springs Coyotes are gunning for a ninth appearance in the state final and eighth state championship, while the No. 3 Crowell Wildcats are targeting a fourth consecutive trip to the final game of the season and third state championship as the two squads square off in Class A Division II state semifinal action Friday night.

At stake in the 7:30 p.m. contest at Jim Ned High School is a trip to AT&T Stadium in Arlington for the Wednesday, Dec. 14 Class A Division II state championship game.

Richland Springs is coming off an 86-36 trouncing of No. 2 Calvert — which had eliminated the Coyotes from the playoffs in their last two meetings in 2013 and 2014 — while Crowell handed previously undefeated Panther Creek a season-ending 54-8 loss a week ago.

“We have to let go of what's behind us and look forward to what's ahead and Crowell's in our sights right now,” said Richland Springs head coach Jerry Burkhart, who owns a 182-8 record guiding the Coyotes. “Coach (Nathan) Hayes and those kids have been to state before, they've got experience and they're pretty spunky and like to get after it. He's going to draw up some things that will expose us a little bit and we're going to have to make adjustments. It's been tough preparing for them this week because he does a good job mixing it up.”

The Coyotes (12-0) — the reigning Class A Division II state champions — carry a 27-game win streak into the contest, while the Wildcats (11-1) have won seven in a row. The only blemish on Crowell's record is a 106-60 loss to Class A Division I No. 1 Happy on Sept. 23.

Both of Crowell's state championships came at the expense of the May Tigers in the 2013 and 2014 Class A Division I state finals, while the Wildcats' bid for a three-peat was foiled by Abbott in last year's championship game in Abilene.

In last week's victory over Panther Creek, Crowell allowed just 55 total yards — with 49 coming on the ground, including a 24-yard touchdown run — and forced a pair of turnovers. For the season, the Wildcats allow 31 points per outing. Taking out the 106 points surrendered to Happy, Crowell gives up 24 points per game.

“They come to play,” Burkhart said. “They're going to be tough and play off their blocks well. They're very well-coached. We have to block well, try and create some seams and we'll have to throw the ball a little more. We're going to try and loosen them up a little bit and keep them off balance.”

Richland Springs will counter with an offense that generates 63 points and 349 yards of total offense — 252 rushing and 97 passing — per outing. Through 12 games, the Coyotes have yet to commit a turnover while creating 34 takeaways, a trend Burkhart hopes to see continue despite a forecast for rain throughout the semifinal contest.

“We've been blessed and, knock on wood, I hope we continue that situation because you don't want to give Crowell the ball,” Burkhart said. “But the weather will be a factor since it's probably going to rain. Rainy games make it tougher for both teams. Everything we're going through they're going to go through, too. Sometimes the moisture can cause a few problems. Hopefully we can take care of business with no turnovers and create turnovers for them.”

The Richland Springs ground attack is anchored by Walker Tippie (1,469 yards, 29 TDs), Hutton Lusty (895 yards, 21 TDs) and Jordan Burkhart (429 yards, 9 TDs), while primary passers include Tippie (31 of 40 for 645 yards, 15 TDs) and Burkhart (18 of 30 for 507 yards, 12 TDs). Receiving threats are Cameron Parham (11-353, 5 TDs), Tippie (9-235, 5 TDs), Lusty (9-222, 5 TDs), Colt Carlisle (9-191, 6 TDs), Traven Day (6-113, 3 TDs) and Burkhart (6-52, 3 TDs).

Crowell's offense enters the contest averaging 63 points per game as well, with most of the damage coming through the air.

Tristen Hayes has completed 184 of 304 passes for 3,471 yards with 65 touchdowns. Tyler Durham (49-1,035, 21 TDs), Skyler Hayes (41-895, 18 TDs), Evan de los Santos (21-500, 10 TDs) and Nick Gonzales (21-331, 6 TDs) lead the receiving corps, while backs Danny de la Pena and Javier Aguilera have combined for 1,077 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns.

“They're a pretty powerful offense and can do a lot of things to hurt you,” Burkhart said. “The quarterback has a cannon for an arm. He can sit back there and hum that ball. They have receivers that run good routes that are sharp and crisp and they max protect very well. We'll have to try and get to the quarterback a little bit.”

The Coyotes head into the game allowing 11 points and 159 yards — 114 passing and 45 rushing — on average, with 18 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries. Prior to allowing 79 points the past two games against Milford and Calvert, Richland Springs yielded just 49 points over the first nine outings of the season.

Leading the charge defensively are Lusty (70.5 tackles, 20 for loss, 8.5 sacks, two interceptions, four fumble recoveries), Tippie (61.5 tackles, eight for loss, one sack, eight interceptions, four fumble recoveries), Carlisle (55 tackles, 14.5 for loss, three sacks, one interception, seven fumble recoveries), Parham (45.5 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks, one interception, two fumble recoveries), Brandon Tharp (39 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, three fumble recoveries), Burkhart (27.5 tackles, one interception, two fumble recoveries) and Day (21.5 tackles, three for loss, three interceptions, one fumble recovery).

“Hopefully we can mix up our fronts and do some different things they haven't seen before,” Burkhart said. “We're changing our defensive scheme a little this week and hopefully the game plan's good and they haven't seen some of the stuff we're going to do. Maybe that will confuse them a little bit.”

Special teams could also prove vital, where the Coyotes have a weapon in Jared Martin, who is coming off a 10-for-10 performance on two-point kicks against Calvert.

According to sixmanfootball.com, Richland Springs is a 45-point favorite.

Friday's winner will face either No. 4 Balmorhea (13-0) or No. 5 Turkey Valley (11-2) — who meet at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Borden County — at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington in the Class A Division II state final.