TUSCOLA — After hanging tough through the early stages, the Early Longhorns dropped a 43-6 District 3-3A Division I decision to the Jim Ned Indians at Indian Stadium Friday night.
The Longhorns (0-7, 0-3) had several opportunities to keep the game closer but were unable to make the fourth-down conversions and defensive stops that might have swung the contest.
Statistically, the Longhorns had another solid night from quarterback Trace Evans who again proved himself a threat both through the air and on the ground. He finished with 75 yards passing on the night and added another 36 yards and a touchdown with his legs. He also threw a fourth-quarter interception off a bobbled catch.
Other Early leaders included Hayden Turner who had 31 rushing yards on 15 carries on the night, and receivers Drew Sessler and Brent Grooms. Early racked up 75 yards passing and 96 yards rushing against the Indians (2-6, 1-2).
Early took the opening kickoff and picked up a couple of quick first downs with a 23-yard Grooms reception and solid runs from Turner, but the drive stalled in Indians territory and Evans was unable to convert a fourth-down pass play, nearly throwing an interception.
Jim Ned found the end zone on its first possession. Taking the ball at its own 37, Jim Ned’s first play from scrimmage was a 44-yard run from quarterback Coalby Rives. The Indians used two different QBs during the game, reserving Rives mostly for running plays while senior Dylan Harrell came in to throw the ball. Harrell’s first completion came on the next play, finding senior receiver Connor Akins for 15 yards. Senior running back Jacob Contreras finished the drive with a 4-yard rush one play later. A two-point conversion gave Jim Ned the 8-0 lead.
Early couldn’t get anything going on its next drive, punting the ball after a three-and-out. The Indians took over at the Early 48-yard-line after a nice return. Their drive started promisingly but all momentum was lost after a holding call that pushed them back to the Early 41. Jim Ned took a fourth-down shot down the right sideline, but the pass fell incomplete for a turnover on downs.
The first quarter ended with pandemonium as Early strung together a long drive after getting the ball back. Several Jim Ned penalties assisted the Longhorns, especially a 15-yard facemask that revived the drive after Turner was dropped at the line of scrimmage on a third-and-4 play. That personal foul gave Early the ball all the way down at the Jim Ned 15.
After a Jim Ned offside call gave Early a second-and-2 from the 7, Evans rushed the ball to the 4 and then Turner took the ball all the way to the 1 yard line, just barely missing the score. A high shotgun snap proved too hot for Evans to handle, however, and Jim Ned pounced on the fumbled snap and kept Early out of the end zone, recovering the ball at the 1-yard-line.
Just one play later, however, Jim Ned coughed the ball up themselves on a second-down run and gave Early another chance. The Longhorns didn’t disappoint a second time, and punched the ball in on a 1-yard Evans keeper just after the second quarter began. The missed extra point kept the Jim Ned lead at 8-6.
Things were looking up for the Longhorns when they forced a Jim Ned three-and-out on the next possession, then recovered their own punt when Jim Ned dropped the ball near midfield. Early couldn’t gain a first down on that drive, however, and was stuffed when it attempted a fake punt by snapping the ball to Sessler on a fourth-and-3 play.
Early head coach Blake Sandford said he felt the trick play was necessary to get his team back in the game.
“It’s something that we practice,” Sandford said. “Just trying to throw all our cards on the table.”
Contreras responded with a 19-yard reception off a screen pass to start the drive. The same player then rushed the ball 12 yards to the Early 7 on a third-and-3 play, and Akins caught a Harrell touchdown pass one play later to put the Indians up 14-6.
Jim Ned extended its lead with just 45 seconds left in the quarter as Harrell found sophomore Jordan Torrez on a comeback in the left corner of the end zone from 10 yards out. Early went to the locker room with a 21-6 lead.
Out of halftime, a big defensive stop from the Longhorns threatened to swing the momentum back their way. Jim Ned recovered an onside kick at their own 45 to begin the half, then drove the ball quickly after Contreras picked up big gains on two identical tunnel screen plays. After sophomore fullback Josh Richey picked up a first down for the Indians at the 8, Jim Ned ran three straight running plays and were unable to punch the ball in. Early successfully defended a fourth-down pass from the 3 to take over on downs.
Early was unable to move the ball from deep in its own territory, though, and the drive ended in a safety when the Early punter’s knee hit the end zone turf as he bent to pick up a bad snap. The safety extended the Jim Ned lead to 23-6.
The Indians returned the ensuing kick to the Early 47 yard line. Richey scrambled for a 23-yard gain on second down to the Early 17, and Harrell capped the drive one play later with an up-the-middle pass to wide-open tight end Preston Freeman for a score that put Jim Ned up 30-6.
Early rode a 10-yard Sessler reception and Jim Ned facemask penalty into Indians territory, but Evans and Turner couldn’t connect on a fourth-and-1 handoff and put the ball on the ground. Early recovered the fumble but turned the ball over on downs back to Jim Ned at the Early 36.
The Longhorns offense was unable to capitalize on its next several possessions, though the defense was able to effectively slow down the Indians attack. Jim Ned finally scored again after an incredibly athletic 12-yard run from Contreras that saw him break several tackles and use his arms to keep himself upright and finally dive forward into the end zone. The touchdown made it 37-6 Jim Ned and effectively sealed the contest with 8:12 remaining.
The Indians finished the night with 271 rushing yards and another 178 through the air.
“You’ve just got to keep your heads up and keep working,” Sandford said of the loss. “They did a good job adjusting.”
He said his team had lots of work to do before next week’s contest. “We’ve still got another task at hand. We’ve got to get better every day.”
The Longhorns return to Early for Senior Night next Friday. They’ll be taking on the Merkel Badgers (3-5, 1-2) who topped Brady 35-21 on Friday night.