EARLY - With a bye week to put an 0-2 district start and countless injuries behind them, the reinvigorated Early Longhorns are eager to run the table over the final four weeks of the regular season and forge into the playoffs for the fourth straight year.
First things first, however, as the Longhorns (2-4, 0-2) will tangle with a San Saba Armadillos (2-5, 1-2) squad that always seems to play well against Early. Game time is slated for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Longhorn Stadium.
“We want to win this Friday night and we’re not looking at anything but this first game,” said Early head coach Robbie Tindol. “Our kids are tired of coming up short on the scoreboard. The effort’s been there, they’ve been great kids and they still have a chance to do something. If we take care of our business and everything plays out like we think, we have a chance to have a successful season and get in the playoffs.”
Early’s remaining schedule consists of San Saba, Comanche (1-6, 1-2) and Dublin (1-6, 0-3), along with a Halloween showdown against Coleman (6-0, 2-0) that could ultimately determine the Longhorns’ postseason fate.
The Longhorns opened district play with losses of 29-27 to Bangs and 34-23 to Brady, but Tindol feels the second half of Early’s loss to the Bulldogs two weeks ago was the point in the season where the team may have finally turned the corner.
“I saw a lot of character and I saw the team come closer together during the Brady game,” Tindol said. “We lost, but we started playing and quit wondering about how each other was going to play. We had a lot of trust in each other and we were able to do some things without our No. 1s in there. That showed the true character of a team that plays hard no matter what. We almost had a come-from-behind win.”
While the Longhorns are significantly healthier than they were going into the Brady game, two key offensive standouts will attempt to play though their pain against San Saba.
Quarterback Nick Lyle, who separated his shoulder against Bangs, and running back Collin Rome, who has battled injuries all season, are expected to suit up Friday. Both missed the Brady game.
“Nick’s been throwing the ball and he’s going to play,” Tindol said. “He could have played at Brady, but that would have been pushing it. He still had a lot of pain and swelling in his shoulder. He’s not going to be completely healed, but he know he’s going to have to play through injuries.
“Collin’s had some time for his knee (PCL injury) to heal, and he’ll play in brace. It’s not a situation where they need to operate and it’s not painful to him. His knee just gives way on him and this brace, which is a different kind of brace, is supposed to help that.”
Not only have the Longhorns been without all their offensive weapons, but Early has committed 11 of its 15 turnovers in the past three games. Against Brady, Early gave the ball away four times. For the season, the Longhorns are minus three in the turnover ratio.
Tindol hopes the return of some missing pieces helps solve the turnover problem.
“Our offense is a high risk offense, but Nick has a strong arm and that’s what really makes us above average,” Tindol said.
Entering Friday’s action, Lyle has completed 56-of-109 passes for 975 yards with six touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Rome continues to lead Early with 312 yards on the ground and six touchdowns, while Zach Green has added 173 yards and four scores.
Receiver Cody Bullard is putting up mammoth numbers with 31 receptions for 674 yards and a touchdown. Seth Coolbaugh has chipped in 15 catches for 190 yards and three touchdowns, while Sean Aly has grabbed eight receptions for 134 yards and two scores.
San Saba will counter with a defense that allows 22.4 points per game. Bobby Pairett already has tallied 94 tackles for the Armadillos, while Jack Whiten has added 56 and Joseph Henry has chalked up 52.
“They play more of a bend but don’t break defense,” Tindol said. “They run an odd front and they blitz a lot, especially with the inside linebackers. They don’t really crowd the line a whole lot and play man, but they’ve shown they’ve gotten better with their defensive responsibilities.”
The Armadillo offense has struggled the last two weeks, scoring a total of seven points after putting up 24 against Dublin in the 8-2A opener, and 35 against Johnson City the week prior.
San Saba does most of its damage on the ground with Gary Gant (123-612, 6 TDs) and Whitten (87-355, 6 TDs). Through the air, Ryan Plumley and Joseph Henry have 216 and 167 yards receiving, respectively, with a touchdown each.
Whitten and George Long, who have split time at quarterback, have combined to pass for 520 yards and two touchdowns, while throwing 10 interceptions.
Early, meanwhile, has four players who have intercepted passes in Shane Morris (three), Nathan Hopkins (two), Green (two) and Cameron King.
“They can pose some problems and they’ve shown they can control the football and keep the ball away from your offense,” Tindol said. “They haven’t scored a whole lot of points, but they can keep themselves in games if you don’t score.
“Since we’ve been playing San Saba they get better every year. They’ve been in a tough situation where they just can’t get over the hump, but they play everybody tough.”