CRUCIAL MOMENT: Frustrated by start, Stewart, Temple aim to respond vs. Hutto in non-district finale
ENERGY BOOSTER: Temple junior defensive back Naeten Mitchell reacts after making an interception early in the first quarter to set up a touchdown during the Wildcats' 27-14 home loss to Magnolia West last Friday at Wildcat Stadium. After consecutive home defeats against No. 1-ranked Austin Westlake and Magnolia West, Mitchell and Temple (0-2) will seek to earn their first victory when they host the Hutto Hippos (1-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium in the final non-district game for both teams. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
One sequence of events from Temple’s 27-14 home loss to Magnolia West last Friday night serves to encapsulate the Wildcats’ 0-2 start to this football season.
A Temple punt pinned the Mustangs at their 10-yard line midway through the third quarter, but Magnolia West’s physical offense methodically marched 90 yards on 17 plays in more than 7 minutes – converting two third-and-1 situations and a fourth-and-2 – against the Wildcats’ tiring defense to score its fourth rushing touchdown for a 27-7 lead with 10 minutes remaining.
On the first play after the ensuing kickoff, Temple responded with senior Samari Howard’s 67-yard touchdown reception from sophomore quarterback Reese Rumfield to get within 27-14.
Although the quick-strike TD aided the Wildcats’ comeback effort, the rub was that it left almost no time for their fatigued defenders to recover on the bench and get updated instructions from Dexter Knox, their exasperated coordinator.
“First thing out of Knox’s mouth was, ‘Are you kidding me?! They just scored?! I want them to score, but I can’t even make an adjustment!” Temple head coach Scott Stewart recalled Wednesday morning, summoning some humor out of a fast-paced scenario that was anything but funny as it unfolded in real time.
Now in his sixth season as Temple’s head coach, Stewart said it reminded him of his two seasons (2014-15) as defensive coordinator for the offensive-minded Mike Spradlin, then the Wildcats’ head coach.
“That was my life with Spradlin when we’d get into those shootouts,” Stewart said.
Temple proceeded to recover a fumble deep in Magnolia West territory on the next offensive snap, but the Wildcats’ offense sputtered and failed to take advantage of that gift – among other missed opportunities – before the Mustangs drained the clock to send Temple to its first 0-2 start since 2011.
“It’s stuff we work on and stuff we talk about,” Stewart said. “Any opportunity where we had a chance to flip the momentum the other night, we didn’t take advantage of it or we couldn’t take advantage of it, whatever the reason was.”
A dearth of production and consistency on offense has led to a faltering, exhausted defense in the Wildcats’ two home games – a season-opening 54-13 loss to top-ranked powerhouse Austin Westlake and the 13-point setback against Magnolia West, whose Mustangs of former Temple offensive coordinator Ben McGehee compiled three touchdown drives of 90-plus yards.
So as Temple prepares to host the Hutto Hippos (1-1) in both teams’ non-district finale at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium, Stewart and his team know that something must change – quickly – for the Wildcats to stop their frustrating slide and carry positive momentum into their District 12-6A opener Sept. 24 at Bryan.
“We just need to win. We’ve got to win. We’ve got (an open date) next week after this, so we don’t want to sit a week where we have a taste of a loss just sitting there,” said Temple senior wide receiver Devan Williams, whose 3-yard reception against Magnolia West is one of only two touchdowns by the Wildcats’ starting offense this season. “We go in expecting to win every game, but no matter the outcome, we know we can improve and there’s a lot of things we can learn as a team.”
Stewart understands that everyone connected to Temple's football program – players, coaches and fans – is frustrated by the team’s difficult start, but he wants to see those feelings channeled into a better and more focused all-around effort and performance by the Wildcats against a Hutto squad that won 27-14 at Waco a week ago.
“You see frustration. We talked a long time on Saturday about that, like how you handle this is going to determine where this goes from here, because it can get worse," Stewart said. "Everybody’s like, ‘It can’t get no worse.’ Oh yeah, it can. I talked to our captains and our leadership council. The way you stop the bleeding is by being under control.
“Samari’s a guy who’s very emotional, but what I like about him is he’s not emotional with, ‘Y’all suck. You’re not doing your job.’ He gets emotional like, ‘Let’s go. We are better than this.’ You see some of that. It’s easier to teach ‘whoa’ than ‘giddy-up,’ I promise you that.”
In Stewart’s mind, it’s a fairly straightforward situation. Temple’s inconsistent offense that has only one returning starter on the line must create more sustained drives – and points – to prevent a Wildcats defense that lacks the desired depth from becoming depleted by spending too much time on the field.
“What you’re seeing from our offense is if you look at our 1s, we’re averaging seven points a game, so it’s going to be hard-rock mining,” Stewart said. “We played 91 plays on defense against Westlake and we played 86 plays on defense against Magnolia West. That’s half a season and we’ve done it in two games. We played 42 plays on offense (against Magnolia West). That is a catastrophic recipe.
“When you panic, there’s not even an opportunity for it to get better,” he added. “I think if we start moving the ball, it fixes a lot of those problems, because now instead of 40 (offensive plays) and 80 (defensive plays), you’re playing 60 and 60 and I think everybody’s more into it.”
EXPECTING MORE: After beginning the season with home losses to top-ranked Austin Westlake and Magnolia West, Temple sixth-year head coach Scott Stewart said he wants to see the Wildcats (0-2) – whose offensive struggles have led to their defense getting overworked and fatigued – play consistently harder and smarter and take better advantage of opportunities in their non-district finale against Hutto (1-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium. "That's the biggest concern I've probably had, is I don't see kids playing as hard as they can consistently," Stewart said. "If that doesn't change, then I don't deserve to stay here." (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Senior running back Howard has rushed for 233 yards and Temple has run for a respectable 342 overall, but 80 of those came on a late-game touchdown by backup running back Jalen Robinson against Westlake’s defensive reserves.
With the Wildcats unable to pose a major rushing threat other than reigning 12-6A Co-MVP Howard, opposing defenses have dropped many more players into coverage to make things more complicated for Rumfield. The first-year starting quarterback has completed 13 of 35 passes (37.1 percent) for 176 yards, including two TDs and two interceptions against Magnolia West.
Howard has replaced Rumfield at QB at various times in the second halves of both games, although a poorly executed running play on fourth-and-goal in the fourth quarter against Magnolia West prevented the Wildcats from cutting their deficit to one touchdown.
“I want to see our offense pick up. We knew coming in that the question marks were a brand-new offensive line and a 15-year-old quarterback. All six of those positions are very inconsistent right now,” Stewart said. “Good defensive coordinators are going to change up looks on you and roll (coverages) around. We’ve got to get something else going to try to spark something. We’ve got to try to attack down the field more. (But) it’s a moot point if you can’t run the football against light (defensive) boxes.”
Temple’s top returning receiver from last season’s 10-2 district championship team is first-team all-district performer Mikal Harrison-Pilot, but the talented junior hasn’t yet caught a pass. The four-star recruit was slowed by a hip flexor injury against Westlake, then played almost exclusively on defense against Magnolia West, making 10 tackles at safety despite still being hindered. Stewart said Harrison-Pilot is having more trouble running straight ahead than laterally and that he’s been “limited at best in practice.”
Regarding a Temple defense that’s allowed 437 yards on the ground and 346 through the air, Stewart said it’s obviously a concern that the Wildcats aren’t winning enough physical battles and are wearing down because of playing too many snaps.
“Our defensive line got pushed around a little bit at times (vs. Magnoplia West). That’s a new one for me. It’s been a while since we’ve been pushed around by anybody. I know everyone’s going to be bigger than we are, and I understand physics, but that hasn’t been a problem (until this season),” Stewart said. “I’m trying to teach a dog how to bite. And sometimes, not all of them will bite. And we’re going to get pushed around until they start biting.”
Stewart added that backup linemen such as juniors Ka’Morion Carter and Aiden Malsbary and perhaps a junior varsity call-up will be added to the rotation in an effort to prevent tackles Tommy Torres and Ayden Brown and ends Eric Shorter and Jaylon Jackson from playing too many snaps this early in the season.
“We can’t play 80 (defensive) plays a game and think that we’re going to stay healthy, at all, with anybody. We’re banged up a little bit, and that comes with playing 170 (defensive) plays in two weeks,” said Stewart, who got a 20-tackle performance from junior middle linebacker and reigning 12-6A Defensive MVP Taurean York last week. “I don’t foresee that keeping anybody out, but we’re going to have to be very conscientious of rolling guys in and out.
“That’s what these (non-district) games are for, is to find out who can play and who can’t. I probably haven’t done a good job of that in the last two weeks. It’s hard for me to throw guys in there if you don’t completely trust them, but these games are the ones where you do that in so that you do (develop trust). There’s been a little frustration brewing with guys not playing as much as they want. So I had a talk with them about doing my job better and about them doing their job better. The way they do their job better is they practice (better).”
As Temple strives to avoid a third consecutive home loss to begin the season, it takes on a Hutto team that got hammered 59-11 by College Station – ranked No. 2 in Class 5A Division I – in the season opener but rebounded by winning 27-14 at Waco last week.
The Hippos’ rough start against College Station did not surprise Stewart, whose visiting Wildcats were outplayed by the athletic, aggressive Cougars in a scrimmage three weeks ago.
“College Station kind of out-physicaled them at times and Hutto missed some opportunities, but I don’t think that’s indicative of Hutto being a bad football team,” Stewart said. “I think College Station is special. They got after our tail; of course, everybody has.
“I turned on the film of Waco and Waco is pretty dang athletic, and Hutto moved the ball on them. Hutto is very athletic at the skill positions, and they’re good up front. They’ve got big offensive linemen – 6-foot-3, 6-foot-5. They're big, lean kids.”
Hutto’s primary offensive weapon is 5-10, 190-pound junior running back Jalon Banks (276 rushing yards), who was limited to 49 yards by College Station's sturdy defense but erupted for 227 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries against Waco.
Senior quarterback Grayson Doggett is 30-for-51 passing for 235 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Jairiez Lambert (eight catches, 92 yards) and junior Gary Choice (11 receptions, 89 yards, two TDs) give Doggett two appealing targets.
“Banks tries to pop it if he can get to that second level, and if you hit him at 5 yards he’s going to try to get 7,” Stewart said. “They run enough quarterback read game to keep you honest. (Doggett) is pretty efficient and likes to get it down the field, and they’ve got two receivers who can absolutely blaze.”
Hutto’s highly aggressive 3-4 defense is paced by junior linebackers Brody Bujnoch (6-3, 225) and Jaylen Parkinson (6-0, 190).
“They pin their ears back and come on with it. You’ve got to get a body on a body,” Stewart said of the Hippos. “Their defensive linemen are 250 to 260 pounds, and the secondary is very, very aggressive. They’ve got a kid who comes off the roof and tries to knock the teeth out of the slot receiver. He disrupts the route so much that it throws off the timing.”
Temple originally was scheduled to host Hutto last year and play the Hippos on the road this season, but factors relating to the COVID-19 pandemic nixed their 2020 meeting. Temple replaced Hutto with Arlington Martin, which dealt the host Wildcats their only regular-season loss. Hutto encountered delays with renovations to its stadium this summer, necessitating the Temple game’s move to Wildcat Stadium.
Hutto made six consecutive playoff trips under head coaches Steve Van Meter and Brad LaPlante from 2014-19, including three 11-win seasons. The host Wildcats memorably edged Van Meter's explosive Hippos 41-34 in 2014 on their way to the 17-5A crown and a trip to the 5A Division I state championship game.
After going 11-1 in LaPlante’s first season in 2018 and 9-2 the next year, Hutto slid to 4-5 last year and missed the playoffs. The Hippos begin District 25-6A competition next Friday at Round Rock Westwood.
As winless Temple shoots to recapture its past successful form, Stewart made it clear that now is the time for the Wildcats’ players and coaches to operate better, harder and smarter.
“Go execute. Again, are we not where we want to be because of the play calls, or are we not where we want to be because guys won’t do their job?” Stewart said. “And it’s hard to diagnose schematics when guys aren’t doing their job – coaches and players.
“That’s the biggest concern I’ve probably had, is I don’t see kids playing as hard as they can consistently. If that doesn’t change, then I don’t deserve to stay here. If I’m sitting here and I’m in charge of anything and I can’t get people to do their job as good as they can, then it does start at the top. It’s my fault right now.”