FAST RECOVERY: After grueling comeback win over Heights, Temple aims to be ready for test at Ellison
CATCH HIM IF YOU CAN: Temple junior quarterback Mikal Harrison-Pilot gets past Harker Heights senior linebacker Treyvione Searcy for a 5-yard touchdown run during the third quarter of the Wildcats' 44-34 comeback win over the Knights last Friday night at Wildcat Stadium. With Temple trailing 21-0 early in the second quarter, Harrison-Pilot moved from receiver to QB and sparked the Wildcats with a 25-yard TD pass to senior Devan Williams and scoring runs of 7 and 5 yards. Defending District 12-6A champion Temple (3-2, 2-0) hits the road tonight to battle the Killeen Ellison Eagles (2-3, 1-1) at 7 at Killeen's Leo Buckley Stadium. Ellison defeated rival Killeen 28-23 in double overtime last Friday. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
KILLEEN – As defending District 12-6A champion Temple and title contender Harker Heights traded blows in last Friday night’s back-and-forth bout at Wildcat Stadium, one thing was certain: regardless of the outcome, the highly physical and emotional game was going to have a lingering effect on both teams.
In a second half that featured five lead changes, Temple moved ahead for good on senior Samari Howard’s 55-yard touchdown sprint with 7:36 remaining and secured its dramatic victory when junior linebacker Taurean York returned a fumble 76 yards for a TD with 1:11 left, helping the Wildcats prevail 44-34.
“It was a hard-hitting game. I think kids were knocked around,” Temple sixth-year head coach Scott Stewart said about his team’s 10th consecutive district win.
Temple had to dig deep to overtake talented and previously unbeaten Heights, which raced out to a 21-0 lead 3½ minutes in to the second quarter. It was the second consecutive season in which the Wildcats wiped out a three-touchdown deficit to defeat the Knights, who led 20-0 a year ago in Killeen before Temple charged back to grab a 38-36 win.
From Stewart’s perspective, what’s most concerning is the so-called double whammy of trying to bounce back from such a physically and emotionally exhausting game and having less time than normal to do so as the Wildcats (3-2 overall, 2-0 in 12-6A) prepare to play the Killeen Ellison Eagles (2-3, 1-1) at 7 tonight at Leo Buckley Stadium.
“It has the potential to be. I think what at least gives us a chance is we try to flush it. Now, you’re still talking about teenagers,” said Stewart, whose Wildcats benefited from collecting four turnovers by Harker Heights and committing zero turnovers of their own. “Saturday meetings are very unemotional, because I don’t want to carry (Friday’s game) over in a good way and I dang sure don’t want to carry it over in a bad way.
“The No. 1 cardinal rule is, ‘Don’t let someone beat you twice.’ And to me, No. 2 is, ‘Don’t win the first one and let ’em beat you in the second one.’ You’ve got to flush it and you’ve got to flush it quick, especially on a short week.”
Stewart hopes that Temple’s M.O. of identifying its problem areas and then getting completely focused on the upcoming opponent will serve the Wildcats well against an Ellison squad that’s coming off of a thrilling victory of its own, 28-23 in double overtime against crosstown rival Killeen last Friday.
“Saturday morning, it’s always be critical of yourself and don’t sit there and say, ‘Ooh, look at me right here!’” Stewart said. “Whatever you’re doing well, keep doing it, but let’s be very critical. That’s at least the emphasis. Hopefully enough of that stuff bleeds over, because Leo Buckley on a Thursday is a weird vibe.
“We played (Killeen) Shoemaker last year on a Thursday over there and that was for a district championship, so it was a different vibe. It’s more about our routine. Again, the first thing our players heard on Monday was, ‘You can only be 1-0 this week, so last week doesn’t matter and next week doesn’t matter. You can’t win a district championship this week, so don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about the hype.’”
As Temple seeks a third straight league crown and its ninth straight playoff appearance, the Wildcats bring a three-game winning streak into tonight’s duel at Ellison. Temple posted a 39-15 home win over Ellison last year. The Eagles are in their first season with head coach Danny Servance and aiming to earn their first postseason berth since 2017. Before that, Ellison hadn’t reached the playoffs since it made three straight appearances from 2005-07.
Stewart is impressed by what he’s seen from Servance’s new-look Ellison team.
“They play a lot harder than they used to, and I’m not naysaying any coaches who were there or whatever. Harker Heights scored some late (in a 49-8 win), but Ellison played Harker Heights’ butt off for 2½ or three quarters,” Stewart said. “From what it looks like, he’s doing a good job with that kind of stuff. I’ve only talked to him in our district meetings, and he’s really solid. They do a good job and it’s a good product on the field.”
Ellison jumped out to a 13-0 halftime lead on Killeen, but the Kangaroos clawed back in the second half with 20 consecutive points and seized a 20-13 advantage with 2:49 remaining in the fourth quarter. It was a short-lived lead for Killeen, as Darius Wilson caught a long pass from Kason Sims for a 74-yard touchdown and a 20-20 game.
Ellison had the ball on Killeen’s 1-yard with 13 seconds remaining in regulation, but the Roos stopped Sims on a running play and the Eagles didn’t have any timeouts left to stop the clock after Servance decided to try to end it with a touchdown rather than opt for the shortest of all field goals.
“I wanted to try to instill some confidence in our offense from the 1-yard line, and that’s why we went for it,” Servance said to the Killeen Daily Herald afterward.
After both teams had passes intercepted in the end zone during the first overtime period, Killeen took a 23-20 lead when Uriel Gomez kicked a 39-yard field goal in the second OT session. Ellison then moved the ball from the 25 to the 10 before senior quarterback Sims scampered to the right side and scooted in for the winning 10-yard touchdown. Per University Interscholastic League rules, Ellison had to attempt a conversion, and it added Wilson’s 2-point run for the 28-23 victory.
“They had a never-say-die attitude tonight and they fought their butts off,” Servance told the Killeen Daily Herald. “Their intestinal fortitude and character showed off tonight and I’m so proud of them.”
Servance has a 66-90 overall record in 15 seasons as a head coach. He went 54-48 with nine playoff trips in as many seasons at Lubbock Estacado, followed by a five-year mark of 10-37 at Odessa, which reassigned him after last season. Servance then was hired to succeed Todd Wright, who was 9-21 in three seasons as Ellison’s head coach.
First-year starter Sims, a 5-foot-9, 195-pound senior, has passed for 785 yards and six touchdowns against six interceptions. He has a trio of productive junior receivers in Zy’ Aire King (20 receptions, 244 yards, two TDs), Dantrell Sterling (19, 228, two) and Bobby Williams II (10, 196, one) along with Wilson, a 6-7, 210-pound senior. Senior running back Khamari McClain has rushed for 238 yards.
“They’re big and very, very athletic. They’ve kind of been different styles of offense and tried different stuff from what it looks like,” Stewart said about Ellison’s offense, which averages 290.6 yards per game. “(King) is a monster. They’re scary.”
On the flip side, a well-balanced Temple offense that features reigning 12-6A co-MVP and Air Force commitment Howard (670 rushing yards, five TDs) and has produced 387.4 yards per game will contend with an athletic, brawny Ellison defense that allows 329.6 yards on average.
At 6-5 and 265 pounds, highly recruited senior end Devonte Tezino (25 tackles, four sacks) is the Eagles’ most high-profile player. His college offers include Baylor, Texas Christian, Houston, Kansas State and Minnesota.
Ellison's other go-to defenders are 6-4, 275-pound junior lineman Brendan Bett (37 tackles, two sacks) and its quartet of linebackers: senior Matthew Moore (6-1, 205) with 62 tackles, senior Calvin Harper (6-1, 205) with 43 stops), junior Steve Albert (6-3, 215) with 42 tackles and senior Xavion Davis-Alexander (5-11, 215) with 33 stops.
“Ellison’s whole defense is real good,” Temple offensive coordinator Josh Sadler said. “Their front seven is probably going to be the toughest we’ve faced all year outside of Bryan. We’re going to have to formation them and get them where we want them and go attack them. Our offensive line’s going to have to play well.”
For the second straight season, Temple fell into a huge first-half hole against speedy Harker Heights. Averaging more than 500 yards per game entering last week, the Knights used Dylan Plake’s touchdown passes of 19 and 38 yards to imposing receiver Terrance Carter and then star running back Re’Shaun Sanford II’s 76-yard TD sprint to build a 21-0 lead 3½ minutes into the second quarter.
“Yeah, we were all frustrated, but we all kept our heads up at the same time and told ourselves we had to move forward and try to get stops,” Temple sophomore nose tackle Ayden Brown about the difficult start for the Wildcats' defense, which proceeded to permit only 13 points in the game’s final 2½ quarters.
“We didn’t move the football (early in the game). It took us a little bit to get going on offense, and I think that had a lot to do with it. And you saw how explosive Heights is on offense,” Stewart said. “Again, it’s impossible to re-create those angles (in practice), because I don’t know if we have anyone who can run like that. What we told them before the game and all week long was, ‘Don’t go try to outrun them. Try to get there faster than they do. There’s a difference.’ If you give a kid like Sanford a step, it’s over.”
The Wildcats’ comeback began in earnest when Temple moved mobile, strong-armed junior Mikal Harrison-Pilot from wide receiver to quarterback after Sanford’s long score in the second quarter. He replaced sophomore first-year starter Reese Rumfield, who passed for 300-plus yards and four touchdowns and also three interceptions in the district-opening 49-7 win at Bryan a week earlier.
“At one point we had played 33 plays on defense and plays on offense. Again, I’m not going to suggest that was Reese’s fault. We also weren’t blocking very well up front. There’s an adjustment you have to make to what they’re trying to do and the speed,” Stewart said. “I don’t have a scout team as good as the people we’re playing. We were struggling to run the ball and Heights was dropping a ton of people (in coverage).
“I do know that when 7 (Harrison-Pilot) is back there (at QB), you’d better load the box up a little bit more or you’re going to get what you get, because there is a different run threat there.”
A week after he caught Rumfield touchdown passes of 95 and 42 yards against Bryan, Harrison-Pilot sparked Temple by throwing to senior Devan Williams (six touchdown catches this season) for a 25-yard TD midway through the second quarter before running in a 7-yard TD 1:23 before halftime to make it a 23-15 game and give the Wildcats positive momentum.
Harrison-Pilot’s 5-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter gave Temple its first lead at 22-21, setting the stage for the showdown’s thrilling back-and-forth finish. Rumfield came back in at quarterback and threw a 20-yard scoring strike to Williams 2 minutes into the fourth for a 29-28 Wildcats lead.
Stewart said there “absolutely” was a psychological angle to putting Rumfield back in at QB at a crucial point in the game.
“Go out there and throw one in a situation where we needed to move the ball and score,” Stewart said. “I feel like, and I think most people would agree, that Mikal’s a weapon out there in a two-point stance on the edge of the field, and there’s not a ball out there that Reese can’t throw. He just was out of rhythm a little bit.
“The first ball he threw (in the first quarter) wasn’t his normal deep throw, because he’s an accurate deep ball thrower. He wasn’t seeing the picture clearly and wasn’t in rhythm, but sometimes you go back to the sideline and take a breath and gather yourself. He came back out there and threw some dots.”
Before Temple practiced on Tuesday, Stewart said the plan was to give both Rumfield and Harrison-Pilot enough repetitions so that the Wildcats feel fully confident no matter which player is at quarterback.
“After the Hutto game, we started kind of reconfiguring how we practice. Mikal still plays quite a bit of receiver, but he practiced way more at quarterback so that we could have that contingency plan ready to go,” Stewart said. “And not because anybody’s lost faith in Reese; it’s just that sometimes you need a spark, and we’ll see how he responds to that. Reese had a great day (of practice Monday), and here’s what I do know: When Mikal’s out there (at wide receiver) and if Reese is on, that causes a lot more stress on the defense.
“So we’ll take it (day by day) and whoever has the best week probably will trot out there (first against Ellison), and that’ll probably be a game-time decision. Is there carryover in that we know we have a Plan B? Absolutely. One week Mikal might be the Plan A and Reese the Plan B, or vice-versa. But nobody has lost faith in Reese Rumfield. They’ll both play a ton of quarterback (in practice) and we’ll evaluate how that goes."
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