EARLY — The Early Longhorns’ third consecutive bi-district championship proved to be one of their most convincing victories of the season. With the Longhorns rolling in all three phases of the game, the Kermit Yellowjackets are the latest team to draw the task of slowing down a stampede.
Winners of eight straight, the Longhorns (8-3), return to the scene of last year’s season-ending loss — Sweetwater’s Mustang Bowl — to face Kermit (9-2) in Class 2A, Division I Region I semifinal action.
Early is coming off a 56-14 throttling of the Merkel Badgers in which the Longhorns scored at least one touchdown on offense, defense and special teams. The Horns finished with 400 yards of total offense, while the defense forced four turnovers and gave up just 74 total yards in the opening half.
“Our kids always believed they could put games together like that, and at times we’ve had a couple of games like that throughout the season,” said Longhorns head coach Robbie Tindol. “What I liked best was the fact that our kids came in focused on these guys and the task at hand.
‘They played exceptionally well. They knew their opponent inside and out and they weren’t going to let anything slip up on them. When you do those things in practice, then when you get into the game it’s what you expect.”
Kermit — which held on to knock off Brady, 23-20, last week for its first playoff win since 1993 — is very similar to Merkel in the style of offense it runs, which should have the Longhorn defenders’ mouths watering.
Despite giving up an average of 207 yards rushing per game in the regular season, Early surrendered only 97 yards on 42 carries against Merkel, an average of 2.3 yards per rush.
“Our team was just thinking about playing at a little higher level than our opponent,” Tindol said. “To me that was the biggest key. We had more size and more team speed in places, and we didn’t give up the big play. When you do that, you’re going to keep yourself in ball games.”
Tindol likens Kermit’s offensive attack to that of Wall, which relies heavily on the wishbone. The Longhorns have experienced both ends of the spectrum against Wall the last two seasons, giving up 335 yards on the ground in last year’s nine-point loss, while reducing that total to 265 yards this year’s 28-point win.
“Kermit is a ground game team also,” Tindol said. “They base out of the wishbone and they look a lot like the Wall teams of the past. Our kids know the kind of problems Wall can place on you.”
Kermit’s best rushing efforts include a 371-yard performance in a 30-13 win over Alpine, and a nine-touchdown, 225-yard performance in a 55-0 victory over Marfa.
Last week, however, the Yellowjackets — who average 31.6 points per game — rushed the ball 51 times, but came away with only 164 yards, or 3.2 yards per carry. Kermit finished with just 196 total yards, compared to Brady’s total of 300.
Quarterback Austin Grubbs completed 4-of-7 passes for 32 yards — including an 8-yard touchdown to Trevor Lesson — and added a 1-yard touchdown run. Jorge Vasquez also scored on a 10-yard run, and the Yellowjackets tacked on a safety thanks to a snap out of the end zone.
“Defensively, it will be a test for our front seven to see if they can stop their run,” Tindol said. “If we do that and get them in passing situations, I feel we’ll do pretty well against that.
“They’ll be another hard-nosed West Texas football team. We’ve seen and played against those types before. They try to get you outflanked and make you prepare for a different style of offense, but their basic philosophy is to come off the ball and run right down your throat. We just need to be on top of our game defensively.”
Merkel’s defense had no answer for Early’s balanced attack last week, and with Kermit in a similar situation of having faced most run-oriented opponents this season, the Longhorns could be in for another huge night offensively.
Entering Friday’s game, the Longhorns are averaging 361.5 total yards per game — 194.7 yards rushing and 166.7 yards passing. Early is also coming off a season-high 56 points, up considerably from its 29.6 points per game average.
“We definitely believe in a balanced attack,” Tindol said. “If somebody shuts down the run, we can go to the pass. We can also try and put a defense on its heels and not let them know what we’re fixing to do. We want to be able to throw when we want and run when we want.”
The Longhorns rushed for 276 yards last week despite leading rusher Collin Rome (1,275 yards, 12 TDs) carrying the ball just once for a 35-yard touchdown. Sean Aly, who had rushed for a total of 4 yards all season, racked up 105 yards and a touchdown on 11 attempts against Merkel.
The emergence of Aly in the backfield — who also has a punt return and last week’s 82 yard kick return for touchdowns — adds another dangerous weapon to the Longhorns’ attack. It also allows the Early coaches to keep Rome strictly on defense as he battles through a nagging hamstring injury.
“We’ve been wanting to get Sean into the game and get him a lot of carries,” Tindol said. “He’s an exciting runner, extremely quick with good speed. Collin’s getting better, but we’re not wanting to play him a lot on offense, so this was the perfect time for Sean to come in and have a game like that.”
The passing game finished with 124 yards last week with Nick Lyle completing 10 passes to seven different receivers. For the year, Lyle is 103-of-221 for 1,654 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
The way Lyle has distributed his passes has turned practically every Longhorn that lines up at receiver a threat. Among the targets are Cody Bullard (26 catches, 433 yards, 4 TDs), Austin Cochran (19-282, 3 TDs), Seth Coolbaugh (15-289, 3 TDs), John Moore (14-240, 2 TDs), Guy Henry (9-243, 3 TDs), Cameron King (7-89, 1 TD) and Jordan Pfenenger (5-93).
The key to Early’s offensive success, however, will be dependent upon the performance of the offensive front of Cody Thompson, Taylor Nixon, Karlton Keesee, Kaleb Hopson and Jose Rosales.
“The offensive line deserves all the credit when we have a big game,” Tindol said. “They’re the reason why we can run the football when teams know we’re going to run it and still be successful at it.”
Kermit’s defense has been hit or miss as the Yellowjackets allow an average of 9.3 points per game with four shutouts. In Kermit’s two losses, however, opponents have averaged 23 points per contest.
“They run a couple of different fronts and play an attacking type of defense,” Tindol said. “They want to make things happen quickly, force the issue and penetrate the line of scrimmage. They have some big kids up front and I think the key to their success is what their down linemen can do. They can pose a lot of problems. They have good quickness in the skill positions and at outside linebacker. They are used to playing a run type offense, so we hope some of our schemes in the passing game will allow us to loosen that up a bit.
“Our offense has to move the sticks and get first downs. We’re not going to be able to big play them and score from a long way out.”
Special teams, which is usually always an advantage for Early, could be a wash this week according to Tindol.
“They are good on all their special teams and you can tell they spend a lot of time working on that,” Tindol said. “We have to play field position with them and make them have the longer field. It will be a case of who doesn’t make the mistakes that will give the other team the advantage.”
Friday’s winner will face either Littlefield (9-2) — which ended Early’s season last year — or Muleshoe (10-1) in the Region I championship game next week.