ABILENE — Never ones to make a cameo appearance in the playoffs under the tutelage of head coach Robbie Tindol, the Early Longhorns appear poised for another lengthy postseason run.
The Longhorns rolled to their eight straight victory and third consecutive bi-district championship — all won at Shotwell Stadium — with Saturday night’s 56-14 victory over the Merkel Badgers.
Next up for the Longhorns (8-3) will be a Thanksgiving weekend showdown with Kermit. That contest is tentatively scheduled to take place Friday night in Sweetwater.
“Our kids like to play here, it’s a nice stadium and the facilities are great,” said Tindol, whose team improved to 4-0 overall in playoff games at Shotwell. “They look forward to playing playoff games here whatever round it is. We’ve been fortunate the first game out in the playoffs to get this stadium. The kids like coming to Shotwell, we’ve had success here and it’s something the kids have in the back of their minds.”
The Early defense forced four turnovers — including one that resulted in a defensive touchdown — and limited Merkel (6-5) to 74 total yards and three first downs in the first half en route to building a 21-0 halftime advantage.
The run-oriented Badgers finished with 275 total yards — with much of that yardage coming when the game was out of reach — but rushed for just 104 yards, well below their season average of 184 yards per contest and the 207 yards per game the Longhorns have given up this year.
“Our defense came out and played great and gave us lots of possessions,” Tindol said. “They did a good job this week preparation-wise.”
Offensively, the Longhorns churned out 400 yards of total offense against a Merkel defense that had allowed 20 total points and an average of 164.4 total yards per game during its five-game win streak, which was snapped Saturday night.
Behind the starting offensive line of Cody Thompson, Taylor Nixon, Kaleb Hopson, Karlton Keesee and Jose Rosales, Early produced 276 yards rushing on 33 carries — an average of 8.4 yards per rush.
Sean Aly saw his most action in the backfield all season and finished with a team-high 105 yards rushing on 11 carries. Bo Ross chipped in 61 yards, Cameron Hughes added 44 and Collin Rome finished with 35 yards on his lone carry. All four of the aforementioned tailbacks also found the end zone at least once.
Through the air, Nick Lyle connected on 10-of-22 passes for 124 yards with a touchdown. Lyle spread the ball effectively as seven different Longhorns caught at least one pass. John Moore led Early with three catches for 39 yards.
“Offensively we did well and had some big plays,” Tindol said. “I thought we misfired on some of our plays in the first half and things could have been better execution-wise. But it was good for them to come back in second half and regroup and stay on an even keel about putting people away.”
The Longhorns needed just 3:10 to score on their first possession as Lyle found Cody Bullard in the corner of the end zone for a 13-yard scoring toss at the 6:25 mark of the first period.
Lyle was 4-of-5 for 52 yards on the 10-play, 69-yard initial scoring drive.
Early took its 7-0 lead in the second period, where Rome scored on a 35-yard sprint on the first snap of the period. The run capped a four-play, 59-yard trek for Early and was the only carry for Rome, who was playing with a slight hamstring injury.
The Longhorns upped their lead to 21-0 with 2:00 left in the first half on a 6-yard Ross run. The touchdown was the culmination of a 92-yard, 13-play march that began when Jordan Pfenenger recorded the first of Early’s three interceptions on the Longhorn 8.
On the drive, Early rushed for 85 yards as Aly picked up 50 — including 30 on his longest carry of the night — Ross added 22 yards and Chase Reeves ran for 13.
Any hopes of a Merkel rally ended on the opening kick of the second half as Aly raced 82 yards to the end zone to increase Early’s lead to 28-0, following the fourth of Mitchell Bailey’s eight extra-point kicks.
The troubles continued for the Badgers as they fumbled on their second play from scrimmage in the third period, which set up the Longhorns at the Merkel 17.
Five plays later the Longhorns were up 35-0 as Reeves found the end zone on a 1-yard dive.
Early capped its 21-point third quarter with Aly’s second touchdown of the stanza at the 5:08 juncture.
Following Lyle passes of 34 yards to Cameron King, 5 yards to Austin Cochran and 12 yards to Guy Henry, Aly ran into the end zone from 13 yards away.
The Longhorns’ lead reached 49-0 with 9:33 left in the game as Brandon Hopkins recorded Early’s third interception and darted 61 yards to the end zone.
Merkel added a pair of late touchdown passes prior to Hughes closing the scoring with a 21-yard scamper for Early with 23 seconds remaining.
“The kids did well in every phase of game,” Tindol said. “They had very few mental mistakes, they kept their focus and they didn’t get carried away or distracted. That usually leads to good things.”