• Greg Wille

BACK TO BASICS: After tough defeat at Heights, playoff-bound Temple aims to improve during open week


SEA OF HUMANITY: Temple senior defenders Julian White (28) and Taurean York combine to tackle Harker Heights senior running back Re'Shaun Sanford II during the final possession of the Wildcats' 13-9 loss to the Knights in last Friday's District 12-6A showdown at Leo Buckley Stadium in Killeen. Defending champion Temple led 9-0 at halftime before Heights scored 13 unanswered points to stop the Wildcats' district winning streak at 19 games and avenge back-to-back narrow losses to Temple. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)





By GREG WILLE

TempleBeltonSports.com

gwille2@hot.rr.com


In Scott Stewart’s seven seasons as Temple’s head football coach, the Wildcats have lost six district games. Before last week, they hadn’t suffered a setback in league competition in almost three calendar years.

As such, it’s not often that Stewart must deliver a message to his players about absorbing the lessons from a district defeat and bouncing back for the next game.

In last Friday night’s showdown at Killeen’s Leo Buckley Stadium that likely determined the District 12-6A championship, Temple saw its 9-0 halftime lead over Harker Heights turn into a frustrating 13-9 loss as the Knights played keepaway to stop the Wildcats’ league winning streak at 19 games and seize the outright district lead.

And instead of getting right back on the proverbial horse to play another game this week, playoff-bound Temple (6-3 overall, 4-1 in district) gets its open date on the schedule and won’t play its regular-season and 12-6A finale until next Friday night against last-place Copperas Cove at 7:30 at Wildcat Stadium.

During his players’ energetic midday workout in Temple’s weight room Wednesday, Stewart said it’s not ideal for the now-second-place Wildcats to have to wait two weeks to play their next game but that they’re motivated to heal some bumps and bruises and make the best of the situation.

“There’s going to be that taste in their mouth, and there’s nothing you can do about that. There’s only one way to get that taste out, and that won’t happen until you play again and you get that taste out of your mouth,” Stewart said. “So my challenge to them (Tuesday) was, ‘Do everything you can do to get yourself in a situation where (you win the next game), and unfortunately you’ve got to wait 14 days.’ That’s just the way it goes.”

Without an imminent game to prepare for this week, Temple essentially has returned to a preseason-like training camp, concentrating on executing fundamentals and shoring up the problems that hurt its cause as the Wildcats were outscored 13-0 after halftime by hungry Harker Heights (7-1, 4-0), whose Jerry Edwards-coached Knights clinched a fourth straight playoff berth and moved to 14-1 in district games since their 2020 home loss to Temple.

“We went back to basics. We spent an hour and a half (Tuesday) blocking, tackling, throwing, catching. We did a 35-minute tackle circuit,” Stewart said. “I mean, we ain’t looking at Cove this week. We’re not looking at scheme.”

Before last week, Temple hadn’t lost to a Killeen ISD opponent since Harker Heights won 42-7 at Wildcat Stadium in 2012. The Wildcats had won 19 consecutive games at Leo Buckley Stadium since their overtime loss to eventual state runner-up Pflugerville in a Class 5A bi-district playoff game in 2007.

Stewart said Wednesday that if someone had told him entering last week’s high-stakes battle that Temple would shut out Harker Heights through 2½ quarters and that Knights star senior running back Re’Shaun Sanford II wouldn’t score in the game, he and the Wildcats certainly would have taken that.

But junior quarterback Dylan Plake’s 36-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Tyler Johnson with 4:34 remaining in the third quarter trimmed Temple’s tenuous lead to 9-7, then the Knights grabbed their first lead at 13-9 1½ minutes into the final period on a 10-yard TD rush by rugged senior back Aimeer Washington.

Temple’s misfiring offense had only 10 second-half snaps up to that point against an athletic, experienced Heights defense, and after a three-and-out series following Washington’s score the Wildcats never got the ball back.

Heights regained possession at its 26-yard line with 8:26 remaining and used the hard-to-tackle rushing of Sanford and Washington – the former carried seven times on the drive and the latter four times – to methodically work its way down the field as the clock ticked down and Temple’s depleted defense became fatigued.

When reigning district MVP Sanford raced off left tackle for a 16-yard gain to the 2 with 1½ minutes left, the Wildcats’ quest for their 20th straight league win and realistic hopes of a fourth consecutive 12-6A championship essentially evaporated.

The Houston-committed Sanford rushed for 148 of his 193 yards in the second half – the 5-foot-9, 170-pound speedster has run for 5,293 yards in three seasons – to help Heights break its run of tough luck against Temple. The Wildcats overcame three-touchdown first-half deficits to defeat the Knights in 2020 and 2021.

“I thought Heights played really hard and stuck to their guns. I’ve said from jump street that I think they’re probably the most talented team (in 12-6A),” Stewart said. “There were six times on that last drive that we made contact with Sanford in the backfield. What would you change about scheme there, you know what I mean? You know that I believe in the stuff you can’t measure, and that kid and those (Heights) kids were tired of having the same result. That’s tough. Hat’s off them. I give them all the credit in the world.

“I’ve watched Sanford squat 600 pounds, and when you get a will to win to go with that . . . there are moments in a game where you just say, ‘Not today.’ It’s hard to scheme against that.”

Temple’s defense got 14 tackles from senior linebacker Teryon Williams-Echols, 12 from senior linebacker and two-time 12-6A Defensive MVP Taurean York and 10 from senior safety Naeten Mitchell along with a fumble that was caused and recovered by senior cornerback Steve Jackson.

But playing without four starters – senior safety/linebacker Zion Moore, senior end Kevin Stockton and two safeties in junior Damarion Willis and sophomore O’Ryan Peoples – because of injuries, the Wildcats couldn’t quite withstand Heights’ spirited second-half charge.

“I told our kids before the game, ‘Look, I don’t know what it’s going to take, but you need to decide what you’re willing to give before we walk out this door,’” Stewart said. “And we played our guts out. I think we played (on defense) a little too much in the second half.”

Stewart said Peoples is showing positive signs as he recovers from the shoulder injury that's forced him to miss the last three games and might be able to play against Copperas Cove next week. Stockton, who suffered a late-game knee injury against Hutto, likely will be sidelined until at least the first playoff games.

Stewart commended the play of cornerback Kaiden Anderson and safety Jaylon Hall, two seniors who are basketball players and before this season hadn’t played football since their junior high days.

As for a Temple offense that mustered only 42 yards on 13 second-half plays, Stewart said his line needed to do a better job of giving junior quarterback Reese Rumfield more time and space to pass against a formidable Knights defense that got a key third-quarter interception from linebacker Jeremy Jennings.

“I was more disappointed in our pass protection. I thought we ran the ball OK, but gosh dang, every time Reese would drop back . . . it was even worse when I went back and watched it on film. He was running for his life,” Stewart said. “I know they’re good, but good Lord. We’ve played against good people.”

Temple senior running back Deshaun Brundage continued his stretch of productive games with 17 carries for 95 yards against Heights. His 6-yard touchdown rush 2 minutes into the game gave the Wildcats a 6-0 lead. Brundage was limited to 21 second-half yards after accumulating 74 yards on 13 first-half carries.

After Brundage exploded for 159 yards at Waco Midway and 175 against Hutto in a comeback victory at home, the first-year varsity standout has rushed for 896 yards through nine games and is within striking distance of a 1,000-yard season as Temple’s hard-running workhorse.

“Deshaun's a gutsy kid, and what we’ve talked about with him is owning who you are,” Stewart said. “My perception was that maybe he was worried about whether people thought he was fast or not fast. I told him, ‘At the end of the day, who cares what people think? We put you out there because we trust you. Own what you are.’”

Stewart said he planned to travel to Copperas Cove to scout the Bulldawgs (2-6, 0-4) in their home game Friday night against Harker Heights, whose Knights seek to clinch at least a share of the 12-6A championship and secure the district’s No. 1 seed for the Division II playoffs.

Temple already knows it’s going to the playoffs for the 10th straight season, but what’s unknown is whether the Wildcats will compete in the Division I or Division II bracket. With the fourth-largest enrollment in seven-team 12-6A, Temple is the epitome of a “swing school” in the postseason picture.

Harker Heights is the smallest school and locked into D-II, while Pflugerville Weiss (4-4, 2-2) shares third place with Bryan (5-3, 2-2). With 12-6A’s second-smallest enrollment, Weiss would be the district’s No. 2 seed in D-II if it qualifies for the playoffs and therefore Temple would be pushed into the D-I bracket.

However, if any two of Bryan, fifth-place Midway (2-7, 2-3) and sixth-place Hutto (4-4, 1-3) reach the playoffs, they will be the Division I representatives and Temple will compete in D-II as the No. 2 seed – unless Heights loses at Cove and falls at home to Bryan next Friday.

“I think there’s four that still can get in and three of them are bigger than we are,” Stewart said.

If Temple plays in Division I, it likely will host Waxahachie in a bi-district playoff game at Wildcat Stadium for the third straight season. The Wildcats won those matchups 38-0 and 28-14, respectively. The Indians (6-2) are tied for third place in 11-6A, two games behind state-ranked co-leaders DeSoto and Duncanville.

If Temple advances in the Division II bracket, its most likely first-round opponent is ninth-ranked DeSoto (7-1), which plays at No. 3 Duncanville (7-0) on Friday. If both Temple and DeSoto finish as district runners-up, their bi-district duel would be played at a neutral location unless they instead have a coin flip to determine home-field advantage.

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