EARLY - For the Early Longhorns, their entire season comes down to Friday’s 7:30 p.m. home finale against the Coleman Bluecats.
Despite struggling to a 1-3 start in District 8-2A play, the Longhorns’ (3-5 overall) postseason hopes are still alive, but only if they defeat Coleman (6-2, 2-2) -and likely by nine points.
“We should have taken care of our business last week,” said Early head coach Robbie Tindol, whose team was stunned by Comanche, 39-38, last Friday. “The kids came out of that feeling dejected and upset and we really thought we were out of the playoff picture.”
Following the loss at Comanche, the best Early can finish with is three district losses. If Comanche (2-7, 2-3) defeats San Saba (2-7, 1-4) Friday, it also will finish with three district losses as its district bye occurs next week. A Longhorn win Friday would then bump Coleman down to three losses, creating a three-way tie for third place.
If that scenario takes place and all three teams finish with three losses in 8-2A action, the district’s points tiebreaker - with a ceiling of 15 points for a win - would decide the final playoff team. Currently, Comanche sits at -14 points (maximum loss to Coleman, one-point win over Early) and cannot make the playoffs unless Coleman loses its last two games.
Coleman is at +15 due to its 62-19 win over Comanche, while Early is at -1. An eight-point victory by Early would give both teams +7 points, and that tiebreaker could either be determined by the head-to-head result or a coin toss. The official ruling on such a scenario was unknown at press time.
The safest bet for the Longhorns is to win by at least nine points, which guarantees Early its fourth consecutive playoff appearance - as long as Dublin (1-7, 0-4) does not pull an upset in next week’s regular season finale.
Early can also clinch the last playoff berth with a win of any margin over Coleman if Comanche falls to San Saba, and the Longhorns defeat Dublin in Week 10.
For Coleman, a simple victory would guarantee the Bluecats’ fifth straight trip to the playoffs. Even with a Week 10 loss to San Saba, Coleman would own the head-to-head edge over both Early and Comanche to win the tiebreaker.
But the Bluecats are limping into Friday’s game with two straight district losses at the hands of Bangs (9-7) and Brady (49-22) following a 6-0 start.
“Coleman’s played two good ball teams,” Tindol said. “They were real close with Bangs, but it was different than our game with Bangs in that it was low scoring. That tells me Coleman is playing some pretty good defense.”
Though the Longhorns must target a specific number of points Friday, Tindol stated the team’s preparation this week hasn’t changed.
“We’re going to play the same game we’ve always played,” Tindol said. “We might look at something at the end of the game where you need to make a choice whether to go for two or an extra point, or kick a field goal. But winning the football game is what the kids need to go in thinking. Let the scoreboard take care of itself.”
While the kicking game could play a crucial role against Coleman, it’s also one of the reasons the Longhorns are in this situation. Three missed extra-points, two missed field goals and a kick return for a touchdown aided Comanche in its upset victory.
“We missed some extra points and some field goals and they ran back a kickoff, so that all ties in with special teams,” Tindol said. “I thought that was more of the difference in the game than a lot of things. If you don’t convert extra points it can open the door for somebody and that’s what it came down to in a one-point game.”
Lost in last week’s setback was the Longhorns’ season-best total yardage output - 595 - which included 465 yards passing.
Quarterback Nick Lyle completed 28-of-46 passes with no interceptions and a pair of touchdowns. Cody Bullard caught 10 passes for 214 yards and a score, while Seth Coolbaugh chipped in nine receptions for 155 yards.
Early also finished with 130 yards on the ground, led by Riley Cason’s 88-yard performance. Collin Rome chipped in three rushing touchdowns and 26 yards.
“The kids did well on the offensive side,” Tindol said. “We didn’t have any sacks or turnovers, had a lot of yards and we scored 38 points.”
The Longhorn offense is hoping for similar success against a Coleman defense that gave up 472 total yards - 259 rushing and 213 passing - in last week’s loss to undefeated Brady.
“We’re going to throw the ball on every team we play,” Tindol said. “That’s just how we’re suited this year. We’re predominantly a throwing team and we give ourselves a chance to run.
“Coleman bases out of an even front. We’ve seen them in a 6-1 some and playing some split. I think they’ll stay pretty much true to what they’ve always done. They’re not going to change things up at this point in the season.”
While Coleman is known primarily as a ground-oriented team, the Bluecats picked up 280 of their 384 total yards through the air last week. Colton Buzzard completed 21-of-34 passes with three touchdowns, while Dalton Deleon grabbed 11 receptions for 99 yards and a score.
“They’ve got a deadly connection in Buzzard and Deleon and there is speed with both guys,” Tindol said. “They also run a good scheme with their offensive line and have other speedy guys in the backfield.”
Glen Edington, Kahlam Salazar, Zach Doyle and Andrew Isom have shared the load in the backfield all season. Edington ran for 55 of Coleman’s 104 yards on the ground last week.
Slowing down the Coleman run game and putting pressure on Buzzard in the pocket, coupled with opening holes on offense and buying time for Lyle, are the keys to the game, according to Tindol.
“It’s going to come down to who whips who up front,” Tindol said. “It’s hard to make any progress if you don’t have a hole. On defense, we have to gang tackle and not give them the opportunity to run the ball down field. This game is going to be determined by the linemen.”
Coleman’s last win over Early came in 2004 which, ironically, was the last season the Longhorns did not make the playoffs.