EARLY — The Early Longhorns have known for two weeks they would be making their third consecutive trip to the playoffs. Saturday night, the Longhorns have the opportunity to earn a third straight bi-district championship.
The Longhorns (7-3) have never lost a first-round playoff game under the direction of head coach Robbie Tindol, but the Merkel Badgers (6-4) will attempt to end that streak in Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. Division I-2A Region I bi-district playoff game at Abilene’s Shotwell Stadium.
Early carries a seven-game win streak into Saturday’s game, while Merkel has won five straight. The Longhorns captured the District 6-2A championship — their second outright title among their three straight — while Merkel split the District 5-2A title with Haskell.
“Our kids have heard about the teams that went before them and they did a great job, but now it’s their time to shine,” Tindol said. “This group wants to make its own mark and see how far they can go. This team really wants to make this season a special one. They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to up to this point and I know they’re going to continue to give us all they have and play hard.”
After opening the season with three straight losses, the Longhorns passed every test in District 6-2A. Early has earned a pair of wins by three points or less in its last three outings — including last week’s 27-24 overtime victory at Ballinger — which Tindol feels will only benefit the Longhorns in their latest postseason run.
“It’s good to be in the pressure cooker situations,” Tindol said. “You want to be in tight ball games and adverse situations just so your kids grow and get better. Those games didn’t do anything but help us.”
Being able to survive close contests only boosts the confidence of a team that has been riding a wave of positive momentum since the middle of September.
During the Longhorns’ win streak, they are averaging 32.4 points per game while allowing 12 points per contest. Those numbers are improvements over Early’s overall season averages of 27 points scored and 17.3 points allowed per outing.
Merkel has posted some impressive numbers during its win streak, as well.
In the last five games, the Badger defense has surrendered a total of 20 points. Merkel has also not yielded more than 199 yards of total offense during that stretch and is giving up just 164.4 total yards per game.
On the other side of the ball, however, the Badgers are averaging just 19.4 points and 284.2 total yards during their streak.
Merkel lives and dies with the run as 184.1 of its 248.6 total yards per game come on the ground. Four Badgers have rushed for over 200 yards this season, led by Rodrick White’s 529 yards. Guy Workman has chipped in 432 yards, while quarterbacks Chisum Cope and Tyler Newberry have split time behind center, rushing for 324 yards and 247 yards, respectively.
Early’s defense is surrendering 288.8 yards per game and opponents have rushed for 207.1 yards per game against the Longhorns.
“Merkel runs the split back veer and they do a lot of different things out of the split back formation, pretty much everything you can do,” Tindol said. “They run traps and sweeps and try and lull you to sleep with the running game, then hit you with a pass at an opportune time. They haven’t thrown a whole lot, but they’ve had some big plays when they’ve gone to the air.
“We expect them to come out and run the option and we have to make sure and take care of our option responsibilities. They will also use their power game on us and they’ve got big guys up front that have shown they can do that. Our defensive unit can’t allow them to take time off the clock and not give our offense many chances.”
Offensively, Early’s ability to both throw and run could give the Longhorns a decided advantage. Not only do the Longhorns have more ways to attack the Badger defense, but Merkel has faced primarily run-oriented offenses in District 5-2A.
Early is averaging 357.1 total yards per game — 186.2 yards rushing and 170.9 yards passing.
The Longhorn rushing attack — which tallied 267 yards against Ballinger — is led by Collin Rome, who has racked up 1,251 yards and 11 touchdowns on 176 carries. Bo Ross has chipped in 378 yards and three touchdowns — including 95 yards and two touchdowns last week — while Shane Morris has added 180 yards and a touchdown on 23 rushes.
Early threw for just 57 yards last week as Nick Lyle completed 6-of-22 attempts. For the season, Lyle has connected on 93-of-199 passes for 1,529 yards with 15 TDs.
Fourteen Longhorns have caught passes this season, led by Cody Bullard’s 25 catches for 420 yards and three touchdowns. Other receiving weapons include Austin Cochran (18-277, 3 TDs), Seth Coolbaugh (14-277, 3 TDs), John Moore (11-201, 2 TDs) and Guy Henry (7-234, 3 TDs).
Tindol stated, however, that the split defense Merkel runs could cause trouble for Early.
“Their biggest attribute is their speed and it poses some problems for us when defenses are like that,” Tindol said. “They swarm to the ball really well and you’re not going to get behind them in the secondary. They run to the ball and run downhill. They have good linebackers, speed on the perimeter and they play get-after-it defense.
“If they decide to bring more than we can block or decide to crowd the line of scrimmage, they’re going to have to play some man-to-man. We’re going to have some isolation situations we have to make sure we take advantage of.”
Tindol stated the keys to an Early victory would be preventing Merkel from playing ball-control offense and winning the kicking game, which the Longhorns seldom lose.
“In this game the execution of our offense has to be at its best,” Tindol said. “Anytime you’re in the playoffs you have to be able to move the football and get first downs. Defensively, we can’t allow them to take a lot of time off the clock. We also have to be real sound in all our speciality teams. We can’t allow a big play to happen.”
The winner will face either Kermit (8-2) or Brady (5-5).