EARLY — The Early Longhorns are coming off their two most lopsided defeats of the season, but still have everything to play for as they venture to Merkel for their final road game of the regular season.
The Longhorns (3-5, 1-2) can earn their first playoff berth since 2008 if they are victorious against the host Badgers (4-4, 1-2) at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Since rallying for a 38-37 victory over Brady in the District 3-3A Division I opener, the Longhorns have fallen to Clyde (57-13) and Jim Ned (62-0). Merkel opened district play with losses to Clyde (23-21) and Comanche (31-14), but rebounded with a win over Brady (43-7) last week.
The Longhorns are attempting to move beyond a recent past that includes being outscored 119-13 the last two weeks, while mustering just 72 total yards with three turnovers in last week’s home loss to Jim Ned.
“We’re going to put it behind us and look forward to the next game,” said Early third-year head coach Blake Sandford. “You have to go back to work, you don’t wallow around. We’re going through the same routine, working very hard on trying to do the things we need to do to be successful against Merkel.”
In the Badgers’ win over Brady last week, Merkel limited the Bulldogs to 177 total yards, including 22 rushing yards on 24 carries, while causing a pair of turnovers.
Offensively, Merkel overcame a five-turnover performance — four fumbles and one interception — by generating 463 yards, with 365 coming on the ground.
Brady Bilbrey rushed for a team-high 114 yards while quarterback Cole Wilkerson contributed 100 yards and a touchdown and Balus Holden chipped in a 92 yards with a trip to the end zone.
Wilkerson also connected on 8 of 15 passes for 98 yards with a pair of scoring strikes — 18 yards to Zach Owens and 11 yards to Jonah White. White finished with six receptions for 46 yards and also rushed for a 46-yard touchdown. Rylan Holloway tacked on a 5-yard scoring carry as well.
“Merkel is very athletic, they have some of the best athletes in the entire district, so that’s a little concerning to us,” Sandford said. “What we have to do is make sure we get 11 hats on the ball on defense, and make sure offensively that we’re sound and that we execute.”
Early enters the contest averaging 19 points and 295 yards — 182 passing and 113 rushing — per contest, with 14 turnovers on the season.
Quarterback Ryan Trompler continues to lead the Longhorns in both passing (144 of 247 for 1,460 yards, 8 TDs, 6 INTs) and rushing (366 yards, 9 TDs) yardage. Other threats out of the backfield include Jesson Tarrant (200 yards, 2 TDs), Hayden Barker (180 yards) and Jose Pesina (125 yards, 2 TDs). Primary receiving threats include Ty Schafer (43-323, TD), Rowdy Elkins (36-439, 3 TDs), Tarrant (27-237, TD), Jim Fowler (17-173) and Devyn Burns (14-212, 3 TDs).
Defensively, the Longhorns are yielding 34 points and 382 yards — 229 on the ground and 153 through the air — with 13 takeaways.
Standouts include Miguel Elizondo (113 tackles, 4 for loss, INT), Brandon Lombrano (63 tackles, 1 for loss), Burns (49 tackles, 1 FR, 1 INT), Jadyn Lehde (47 tackles, 1 for loss, 2 FRs), Teddy Ozuna (47 tackles, 2 for loss), Chase Keilers (45 tackles, 6 for loss, 1 sack, 4 FRs), Barker (36 tackles, 5 for loss, 1 sack), John Griffin (34 tackles, 6 for loss, 1 sack, 1 FR), Mason Flippin (31 tackles), Ethan Rhodes (30 tackles, INT) and Pesina (30 tackles).
As for the keys to coming away with a victory and postseason berth, Sandford said, “Certainly we have to execute at a higher level. We have to translate what we’re doing in practice to a game. We’ve done a great job in practice, we’ve worked hard, but we have to be able to move that to a game and get after it no matter the offense or defense or the other team on the opposite side of the field and what they’re trying to do to us.”
Last season, Merkel recorded a 48-0 shutout victory over Early.
According to Harris Ratings Weekly, Early is a 25-point underdog.