EARLY — The Early Longhorns’ latest postseason run finds them in the exact position they were two years ago. Then, a 28-20 loss to Argyle in the state semifinals prevented the Longhorns from playing in the 2005 state championship game.
Now, Early has earned a second chance to compete for a Class 2A, Division I state title, but first the Region I champion Longhorns (10-3) must get past the Region II champion Farmersville Farmers (11-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Waco ISD Stadium.
Saturday’s survivor will face either Region III champion and fourth-ranked Tatum (12-1) or Region IV champion and fifth-ranked Salado (13-0) — who will clash at 6 p.m. Saturday in Corsicana — to determine the state champion next weekend.
“Nearly all the seniors on this year’s team were on the field in 2005 when we didn’t make it past this round,” said Early head coach Robbie Tindol. “That’s something that has weighed on their minds. If we played a little bit better game against Argyle in 2005, we could have been playing for it all.
“They are taking this game very seriously and they know only the winner gets to go on. It’s not good enough just to get to this game. You don’t get to make a state appearance if you don’t win this game.”
The Longhorns have won 10 consecutive games and, as expected, each postseason opponent has been a tougher obstacle to overcome. Last week in Midland, the Longhorns rallied in the second half, then held on late to upend Littlefield, 17-14, which avenged last year’s season-ending loss.
“Our defense won that game for us,” Tindol said. “We had quite a few turnovers, but the kids hung in there the whole game and the defense kept giving us a chance to win the ball game. Even at the end when we needed to run the ball and we fumbled, the defense shut them down again. The defense played a great game, forced them to kick at the field goal and we were lucky enough to come away with the win.”
Early’s regional championship victory marked the third consecutive game in which the Longhorn defense surrendered no more than two touchdowns. Farmersville, however, will provide Early’s defense with not only its toughest challenge of the postseason, but possibly the entire year.
The Farmers — who have won eight consecutive games themselves — are averaging 51.6 points per game during their win streak and have scored less than 42 points just once in that span. Last week, the Farmers avenged a 28-27 season-opening loss to previously unbeaten Caddo Mills, rolling to a 42-6 victory.
“They’ve been putting a lot of yards and points up against people throughout their whole season,” Tindol said. “They are scary in that they can break the line of scrimmage and have the speed to take it all the way on you.”
Farmersville’s offense is led by running backs Tahj Redwine, Nick Taylor and Chase Wiggins, quarterback Austin Brooks and receivers Quincy Roberts and Jared Helmberger.
Redwine rushed for 146 yards and two touchdowns against Caddo Mills last week, added 177 yards and two scores in a 35-6 second-round win against Winnsboro, and finished with 80 yards, two catches for 60 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-14 bi-district triumph over Pottsboro.
Brooks threw touchdown passes to Roberts and Helmberger last week and added a 38-yard touchdown run. Two weeks ago, Brooks ran for 45 yards and a score and in the playoff opener he completed 5-of-6 passes for 120 yards with a touchdown.
Taylor contributed 170 and 94 yards rushing, respectively, and three total touchdowns in the first two playoff games. Wiggins added 80 yards and a score last week.
“Against good teams like this, you don’t know if you’ll be able to stifle their offense and keep them off the scoreboard like we did last week,” Tindol said. “It should be another one of those games against a run-oriented offense that likes to surprise you with the pass. I think our kids like going up against those types of teams. Defensively, we can’t let them control the clock. We have to take the line of scrimmage away from them.”
Early’s defense has yielded just 134.7 yards rushing per playoff game, while giving up 120.7 yards through the air. The Longhorns have also forced six turnovers in three playoff games. The 255.4 yards per game Early has given up in the playoffs is a considerable improvement over the 281.1 yards the Longhorns surrender on average through 13 games.
“It takes a lot of pride to have a good defense,” Tindol said. “The guys that play defense for us play with lots of enthusiasm and have fun playing on the defensive side. It’s a true test of your character to have a defense that takes pride in stopping people. That’s something that’s developed over the year. We didn’t start out like a house of fire, but they’ve come to trust each other and they know where each other is going to be. It’s fun to watch them play defense.”
Farmersville’s defense has been just as impressive, however, as the Farmers have allowed just 8.5 points per game during their eight-game win streak and no team has scored more than 14 points during that stretch.
The Farmers limited Caddo Mills to 176 total yards last week and two weeks ago Winnsboro rushed for just 75 yards against Farmersville.
“They play a split defense and they have a lot of the same athletes on the field offensively that they do defensively,” Tindol said. “They let their guys run to football and make plays. With their split defense, they try to cover all parts of the line of scrimmage, and they play close enough to the line of scrimmage that it’s almost like they have an eight-man front. It will be a true test to see if our offense can block those guys and make holes for our backs. We need to move the sticks and keep them on their heels so we can throw the football.”
Early’s ground game has been the most consistent aspect of the offense in the postseason. The Longhorns are averaged 240.3 yards rushing per game in the playoffs, and in the last three games Early has had four 100-yard rushers.
Leading rusher Collin Rome (1,499 yards, 15 TDs) has cracked 100 yards in each of the last two games and has rushed for four touchdowns in the playoffs. Bo Ross tallied a team-high 141 yards and a score against Kermit, while Sean Aly racked up a season-high 105 yards and a touchdown versus Merkel.
The Longhorns are also more than capable of going to the air when needed as quarterback Nick Lyle has completed 116-of-251 passes for 1,896 yards with 17 touchdowns.
Among his stable of receiving threats are Cody Bullard (29-460, 4 TDs), Austin Cochran (20-298, 3 TDs), Seth Coolbaugh (17-331, 4 TDs), John Moore (15-267, 2 TDs), Guy Henry (10-253, 3 TDs) and Cameron King (10-124, TD).
The starting line of Cody Thompson, Taylor Nixon, Karlton Keesee, Kaleb Hopson and Jose Rosales has paved the way for 358.4 total yards — 198.7 rushing and 159.7 passing — and 28.2 points per game this season.
“We run a spread offense, multiple formations and we do throw the football, but our kids know we need to be able to run the football,” Tindol said. “Our linemen love for us to run the football behind them. They feel more in control when we’re able to run the football and move the ball that way. You have to have a good running game. Not many teams win by the throwing the football every play. We need to be able to run the football, then throw it when we want to.”
Early has turned the ball over seven times the last two weeks, however, which is an area that must improve before it costs the Longhorns a victory.
“We’re going to have to cut down on the mental mistakes and errors we had last week and play a better game as far as moving the football and not stopping ourselves is concerned,” Tindol said.
Special teams could again be the deciding factor as was the case last week. Mitchell Bailey’s 27-yard field goal — his ninth successful kick in 12 attempts this season — turned out to be the difference as Littlefield missed its chance to pull even late in the fourth quarter.
“We have a chance to be good in the kicking game against them,” Tindol said. “I think it will play a big part in the game, and the further down the road you get the more important special teams gets. We have to be good in all aspects.”