EARLY — Early head coach Robbie Tindol stopped short of calling it a revenge game, but make no mistake — the Longhorns want to give the Littlefield Wildcats a dose of their own medicine.
Littlefield ousted Early, 33-28, last year to capture the Division I-2A Region I championship en route to an appearance in the state title game. The Longhorns, who are participating in a third-round playoff game for the third consecutive season, believe a victory over the Wildcats could catapult them toward a possible state championship.
Kickoff in the eagerly anticipated rematch between Early (9-3) and Littlefield (10-2) is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at Midland’s Grande Communications Stadium.
“We wish we could have played that game over last year and done some things different,” Tindol said. “Our kids saw Littlefield go all the way to state and they know that could have been them. They’re eager to get back on the field with Littlefield and take care of some business they felt they should have taken care of last year. This game has been paramount in their minds and they’re are looking at this as a good challenge.”
Early rides a nine-game win streak into Friday’s showdown, and the Longhorns have shown marked improvement in each game. Through the first two playoff games, the defense has grabbed the headlines by holding a pair of run-oriented squads to a total of 213 yards rushing and an average of 13 points per game.
The Longhorns will need a similar performance to slow down the Wildcats, who rushed for 309 yards against Early last year.
“Our defense has played with a lot of confidence against teams that run the football and don’t run a lot of sophisticated formations,” Tindol said. “You still have to read your keys, though, and fly to the football. Our defense takes it personal that they are going to try and run over us. Our defensive front wants to be in the mix of making tackles and this gives them that opportunity.”
Littlefield will live and die with its running game — much as Merkel and Kermit did in the first two playoff games — but the type of challenge the Wildcats present on the ground is completely different than what the Longhorns have shut down thus far in the postseason.
“It’s almost like a full-fledged triple option attack,” Tindol said. “They give the ball to their slot back and tailback and they get the fullback and quarterback involved in carrying the football. They run a lot of misdirection plays, they hit the hole fast and hard, and they have a play for every hole up and down the line. It’s a different type of run attack than we’ve seen the last two weeks.”
Many of the parts are the same for the Wildcat offense, which tends to just plug new players into their system.
This year, O.J. Zapata has served as the leading rusher with 1,492 yards while Kyrus Collins has chipped in 884 yards on the ground.
Collins rushed for a team-high 124 yards with a 66-yard touchdown in a 28-21 overtime win over Muleshoe last week, while Zac Lopez stepped up and added 114 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including the game winner in overtime. Zapata was limited to just 24 yards last week, but the Wildcats still finished with 342 yards rushing as a team on 61 carries.
Tyree Williams is the lone big-play threat at receiver with 24 catches for 573 yards, including a 73-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Jordan Broadhurst last week.
“They’re very similar to last year and they’ve got some of the same people back,” Tindol said. “Their schemes don’t change a whole lot from year to year, they’ve been running the same offense for a lot of years. They’ve plugged in a few new faces, but they have the same type of mentality. They’re going to try and smash us and try and grind it out on the ground. We know what they’re like and they kind of know us. We need to worry about what we do and go out and play our best game.”
On the other side of the ball, the Longhorns have shown they can hurt defenses with a variety of offensive weapons.
Behind a starting offensive front of Cody Thompson, Taylor Nixon, Karlton Keesee, Kaleb Hopson and Jose Rosales, the Longhorns are averaging 257.5 yards on the ground and have had three players rush for over 100 yards in two playoff games. Sean Aly racked up 105 yards against Merkel, while Bo Ross tallied 141 yards against Kermit and Collin Rome chipped in 110 yards.
“It’s good to be able to do that in the sense that we are able to rest some people and go with some different tailbacks,” Tindol said. “It helps to be able to run a few guys and not make one guy carry the ball all game long. It also helps defensively in that the kids that play defense can get a little bit of a rest and we can get them out of the game for a time.”
During the playoffs, quarterback Nick Lyle has tallied 20 completions for 289 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Lyle has completed at least one pass to seven different receivers in each game.
“Our passing game is predicated on that,” Tindol said. “We want the quarterback to read the defense and take what they’re giving us. We don’t try to evenly disperse the ball, we just want to hit the guy that’s open. Our receivers have done a good job running their routes because they never know if the ball is coming to them or not.”
Among the leading receivers for the Longhorns are Cody Bullard (29-460, 4 TDs), Austin Cochran (20-298, 3 TDs), Seth Coolbaugh (16-323, 4 TDs), John Moore (15-267, 2 TDs), Guy Henry (10-253, 3 TDs) and Cameron King (9-124, TD).
Early had the advantage of meeting teams in the first two rounds that had not faced many passing attacks. That trend will end Friday as Littlefield limited Muleshoe’s spread attack to 229 total yards — 205 yards passing and 24 yards rushing on 14 carries.
“They played Muleshoe last week and they’re a complete spread team and run an offense a lot like Texas Tech,” Tindol said. “They gave up some yards, but they played really well, at least good enough to win. Also, in the Panhandle they do see a lot of run-oriented teams. Our ability to both run and pass is going to be a big asset. We don’t want to be predictable and we want to have the advantage of them not knowing whether we’re going to run or pass.”
The biggest turning point in last year’s game occurred in the first half as the Longhorns forced three Littlefield turnovers but failed to generate any points off them. Meanwhile, the Wildcats turned a pair of Early turnovers into a 14-point halftime advantage.
Avoiding the turnover bug and another slow start offensively will be crucial for the Longhorns Friday night.
“It’s real important that we perform well at the start of the game,” Tindol said. “In a game like this that could be tight, turnovers become huge, especially since Littlefield is going to try and ball control us and keep the ball away from us. If we get some turnovers, we have to take care of our business afterwards. We thought that was the biggest part of the game last year. We were playing from behind and they were able to eat the clock. We’d like to get off to a fast start, get ahead of them and not give them the luxury to have seven-minute drives.”
Friday’s survivor will tangle with Region II champion Caddo Mills (12-0) or Farmersville (10-2) in the state semifinals next week.