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May Tigers not underestimating defending champ Blum in state semifinals

Mike Lee
Special to the Brownwood Bulletin
Bo Morrow, right, leaps for a catch in the end zone for Irion County during a game against May in Robert Lee on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020.

For this week’s state semifinal game, veteran May Tigers football coach Craig Steele threw away the scouting report on the Blum Bobcats that he used for their Sept. 25 nondistrict game.

“We just threw it away and started over on our scouting report because Blum is a different team right now,” Steele said this week. “They’re more like a team we haven’t played before.”

Third-ranked May (12-1) and No. 12 Blum (9-3) collide at 6 p.m. Saturday at Dublin in the Class 1A Division I state semifinals. The winner will earn a shot at the Sterling City-Borden County winner for the state championship Dec. 16 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

May was made a 45-point pick by sixmanfootball.com, but Steele isn’t getting caught up in being an overwhelming favorite.

Parker Conner, left, rushes the ball for Irion County during a game against May in Robert Lee on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020.

“We showed our players the film of our first game with Blum and then how they looked last week against Union Hill (in the state quarterfinals),” Steele said. “Our kids could see that they’re not the same team. They’re considerably better.”

Blum, the defending Class 1A Division I state champion, has experienced an up-and-down season, beginning with the task of replacing its starting backfield from last year’s 13-2 team. Then key injuries set back the Bobcats at the same time they lost three consecutive nondistrict games to Jonesboro, May and Abbott.

May’s 74-28 win, in which the Tigers beat the Bobcats by the 45-point mercy rule, is Blum’s worst loss this season. But the Bobcats were missing leading rusher Koby Clinkscales, a 190-pound senior, and senior Trey Bullard, a receiver who has since moved to quarterback. Bullard’s move to quarterback allowed senior Tucker Willingham to move to guard, where he has blossomed into a reliable blocker and receiver.

After all the ups and downs, Blum finally jelled into a team capable of making a run at defending its state title. The Bobcats have won seven straight games — including four District 11-1A wins by an average of 49-13, plus playoff victories over Coolidge, Saint Jo and Union Hill by an average of 59-35.

The Bobcats’ personnel moves and on-field resurgence is why Steele thinks his Tigers are facing a completely different team than they saw Sept. 25. During that game at Blum, May raced to an early 38-6 lead. Blum rallied to within 38-22 in the third quarter, but May eventually pulled away for the 46-point win.

“They finally found the right combinations that made them better on offense and defense. That’s helped them peak at the right time,” Steele said of the Bobcats. “They’re taking better care of the football. Their No. 11 (Clinkscales) allows them to stay ahead of the chains. He makes it hard to hold them to less than 15 yards over four downs.

“They’re definitely playing their best ball right now.”

In the earlier game against Blum, May’s Kaden Halk returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and scored four TDs overall. Teammate Isidro Salinas rushed for 93 yards and two scores, and Hayden King led the Tigers’ defense with 13 tackles, including five for loss.

Unlike Blum, May has been consistent all season. The Tigers’ only loss was 44-40 to No. 1-ranked and undefeated Sterling City. May is averaging 58 points per game, but its strength has been its defense, which allows only 17 points.

Trevin Coffell, far left, throws a pass under pressure for Irion County during a game against May in Robert Lee on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020.

In last week’s 72-38 win over Leakey, the Tigers trailed 38-32 at the half before shutting out the Eagles during the second half. Steele said his players learned to trust the defensive game plan in the second half.

“We had a good game plan, but the kids got distracted in the first half. We wanted to attack a couple of Leakey’s best kids in the passing game, but our players saw other receivers running open and tried to cover them instead. They had to trust the game plan,” Steele said.

“In the second half, we played good football. We picked up where we left off against Jonesboro.”

In the Tigers’ second-round playoff game, the May defense limited Jonesboro to 16 points — 41 below its average of 57 points per game.

Against Leakey, May’s defense had to adjust to losing senior cornerback Isidro Salinas to an ankle injury. Sophomore Damian Salinas replaced his older brother in the lineup, and senior Lance McGinn also stepped up to fill the void left by his absence.

Isidro Salinas, center, rushes the ball for May during a game against Irion County in Robert Lee on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020.

Offensively, Isidro Salinas is one of multiple running backs May uses. Against Leakey, his carries went to Halk, who responded by rushing for 337 yards and seven touchdowns. Also, senior Rory Bustamante ran for 116 yards and one TD against Leakey.

“We have over 3,000 yards rushing as a team, but we don’t have a 1,000-yard rusher yet,” Steele said. “We’re very fortunate to have the ability to rotate a lot of running backs. Teams can’t key on one player.

“Rotating a lot of backs breeds unselfishness. We talk a lot about how players have to sacrifice individual glory for the team in a team sport like football. Being able to rotate backs makes us walk that philosophy, not just talk it.”

Steele said the availability of Isidro Salinas for Saturday would be a game-time decision.