EARLY — Week 9 proved upsets can happen at any time in District 3-3A Division I action, and the Early Longhorns are looking to pull one of their own in the next-to-last outing of the season.
Still searching for their initial victory of the 2016 campaign, the Longhorns (0-8, 0-4) host the Merkel Badgers (3-5, 2-1) — fresh off a 35-21 shocker over Brady — at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Early, meanwhile, suffered a 43-6 loss at Jim Ned last week, an outing in which the Longhorns trailed 21-6 at halftime before the game got away from them in the second half.
“In the first half we were executing, moving the ball and had some chances to get some scores,” said Early second-year head coach Blake Sandford. “It was a tight ball game when we went in at halftime, but we never really got on track in the second half.
“We were in a ball game and you have to believe you have a chance to play with a group on Friday night. But we have to play two halves and we didn’t do as well as we needed to do in the second half. That’s one of the things we have to get better at is playing two halves of football.”
In Merkel’s upset of Brady, the Badgers led 6-0 after one quarter and 26-14 after both the second and third quarters.
Merkel’s defense allowed just 199 yards — including only 58 rushing yards on 23 carries — with a safety and a pick six by Zach Owens, one of four Brady turnovers. Jerrid Long finished with eight tackles and two sacks trailed by Tatian Gonzalez with seven tackles and six apiece from Balus Holden and Hunter Seaton.
Offensively, the Badgers generated 332 yards — 201 on the ground and 131 through the air. Cole Wilkerson completed touchdown passes of 28 yards to Jonah White and 75 yards to Matt Holmes, while White added a 30-yard touchdown carry and Holmes chipped in a 1-yard touchdown run. Angel Salas finished with a team-best 97 yards rushing while Wilkerson completed 4 of 8 passes for 131 yards.
“I don’t know that I’m ever surprised,” Sandford said in regard to Merkel’s victory last week. “I anticipate them to play well. They’ve got some athletes and some linemen, and I anticipate they’ll do the same kind of stuff against us Friday so we have to be prepared and we’ve been working toward that.”
For the season, Merkel — which opened district with losses of 50-0 to Clyde and 38-14 to Comanche — averages 15 points while allowing 27 per outing. The Badgers’ 35-point total against Brady was a season high and marked just the third time Merkel had cracked 20 points or more in a game.
“Their defense is an odd front but they’ve shown they will get in an even front, too,” Sandford said. “They play a read and react kind of defense.
“Their offense is highlighted by some really good skill kids and they try and get the ball in their hands and try and run the ball. We have to be able to stop the run and that’s something we’ve tried to work on all year and something we have to get better at. This Friday’s another opportunity to keep working and keep getting better at the game of football.”
Early enters Friday’s contest allowing 45 points and 467 yards — 339 rushing and 218 passing — per contest with seven turnovers forced.
Defensive standouts include Miguel Elizondo (67 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack, 1 FR), Griffin Ehlers (45 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack), Drew Sessler (36 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack), Abe Morris (34 tackles), Jim Fowler (33 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 FR), Eric Diehl (31 tackles, 2 for loss), Christian Alcorta (31 tackles, 4 for loss, 2 sacks, 1 FR), Chase Keilers (27 tackles, INT), Hayden Turner (24 tackles), Mason Flippin (23 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FR), Adrian Alfaro (23 tackles, 1 for loss), Devyn Burns (23 tackles, 1 FR), Xavier Yebra (22 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack) and Christian Mills (19 tackles, 1 for loss).
On the offensive end, the Longhorns are mustering just 10 points and 210 yards — 123 passing and 87 rushing — on average with 10 turnovers.
Evans, at quarterback, has connected on 61 of 176 passes for 835 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions, while Sessler (24-484, 7 TDs), at receiver, continues to be the biggest playmaker. Other receiving threats include Burns (11-124 yards, 2 TDs), Josh Graves (7-79), Ehlers (6-81), Turner (6-48) and Keilers (5-25). Turner (246 yards) leads the ground game while Evans (203 yards, TD) scored Early’s first rushing touchdown last week.
“I’m proud of the effort of our kids,” Sandford said. “Our effort level has been extremely high. They’ve fought and fought and I expect them to continue to fight.
“Offensively we’ll continue to try and move the chains, hold on to the ball and keep moving down the field. I expect our defense to stop people and keep getting better each day in practice.”
According to Harris Ratings Weekly, Early is a 17-point underdog.