BIG SHOWDOWN AT THE BUCK: Temple's defense – including senior Jayven Taylor (95) and juniors Marshall Grays (11) and Tommy Torres – will try to contain Killeen Shoemaker's fast, explosive offense when the first-place Wildcats (7-1, 5-0) battle the second-place Grey Wolves (6-1, 4-1) in a District 12-6A duel at 7 tonight at Killeen's Leo Buckley Stadium. Playoff-bound Temple, which rallied past Shoemaker last year for a 38-28 home win, will clinch the district championship with a win, while the Grey Wolves are aiming for a victory that would tie them with the Wildcats for the 12-6A lead. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
KILLEEN – Instead of watching Killeen Shoemaker play Harker Heights last Friday night at Leo Buckley Stadium, Temple head coach Scott Stewart much rather would have been coaching the Wildcats against rival Belton at Wildcat Stadium.
However, last Tuesday afternoon Belton determined that because of COVID-19 cases and related quarantines, the Tigers could not safely field a varsity team for the second consecutive week (their game against Heights was rescheduled) and would not travel to Temple for Friday's scheduled clash.
That left the District 12-6A-leading Wildcats (7-1 overall, 5-0 in 12-6A) with a forfeit win and an unexpected open date on their schedule leading into tonight's high-stakes showdown with the speedy Grey Wolves of second-place Shoemaker (6-1, 4-1) at 7 at Buckley, where Temple can clinch the outright district championship.
Although it officially went down as Temple's eighth straight victory over Belton in a 10-season span, the Wildcats – who already have wrapped up their eighth consecutive playoff berth and will compete in the Class 6A Division II bracket – definitely were bothered by not getting to compete in the highly anticipated rivalry duel.
“It was a bummer,” sophomore receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot said. “We were all excited to play.”
Because Belton and Harker Heights now plan to make up their game in the regular season's final week, there is no available date for the Temple-Belton game to be rescheduled.
Stewart certainly understood his players' frustration but knew that all parties involved – Temple, Belton and district's other six schools – had to adhere to the policies agreed upon last Tuesday by 12-6A's District Executive Committee.
“Our kids were frustrated. They wanted to play that game. They look forward to that game,” Stewart said. “They just want to play. They asked, 'Why?' and that's a question I can't answer. That's not my decision to make. But the counterpoint to that is as a district we had to look at all teams and not just what teams were affected at that moment. You can read and I can read that the (COVID-19) numbers are going up by the day.
“So you could make sure all the (12-6A) games are on the schedule and crunch it down to (playing) every five days, which in my opinion is not safe, but then if anyone else gets (a COVID-19 situation) it's an automatic forfeit. How do you have that conversation of, 'We adjusted the schedule for the people that were affected then, (but) if we get affected later we have to forfeit'? It didn't make sense to me.”
Temple already was two days into its game-week preparation for Belton when it found out that the game wouldn't be played, so Stewart took the curveball and used it as an opportunity for his team to get back to basics before the Wildcats fully turned their attention to Thursday's showdown at Shoemaker.
“(Last) Tuesday and Wednesday were going back to fundamentals, and this game is not hard – it's blocking and tackling,” said Stewart, whose squad will host Killeen next Friday in its regular-season finale. “I'd much rather not do that, because I'm a routine guy, but you try to find a silver lining in everything.
"We don't trade film (with the following week's opponent) until Wednesday anyway. By the time you have a chance to break it down it's Thursday, so we didn't really start looking at Shoemaker until probably (last) Thursday.”
Speaking of Shoemaker, the second-place Grey Wolves stand in the way of Temple winning its second straight 12-6A championship and first outright league title since 2015. If fourth-year head coach Toby Foreman's Shoemaker squad prevails tonight, it will tie Temple for the district lead and secure the Wolves' second straight playoff berth.
After overtaking tough Shoemaker last year, Temple
seeks to 'weather the storm' vs. 'loaded' Grey Wolves
Stewart and a few of his assistant coaches didn't need to attend Shoemaker's game against Heights last Friday to learn that the Grey Wolves are fast, talented, well-coached and simply a very good team.
But Temple's coaches went anyway, and what they saw only confirmed what they already knew, despite the fact that Heights rallied from a late 44-29 deficit to force overtime and then seized a stunning 51-50 win, dealing the Grey Wolves their first loss this season.
“They're loaded,” Stewart said. “They're explosive at so many different positions. That's the scary part. It's the quarterback. It's the running back. They spray it all over the field.”
So even though Stewart departed Buckley when Shoemaker led by 15 points in the fourth quarter, he didn't miss anything as it pertains to the tough challenge Temple will face tonight on the same field where the Wildcats rallied from a 20-0 second-quarter deficit to edge Heights 38-36 on Oct. 29.
“I'm going over there to evaluate talent, which there is a ton of, and take a look at schemes and stuff like that,” Stewart said of planning for Shoemaker, which averages 45.1 points per game. “They've adjusted their schemes and gotten out of the pistol (offense) more. They formation you to death. (But) if they find something they like, they tend to stick with it.”
After blasting Shoemaker 42-6 in 2018, Temple got an up-close look at the Grey Wolves' rapid improvement under Foreman 14 months ago at Wildcat Stadium. Shoemaker grabbed a 21-10 lead early in the third quarter, and late in the third the Wolves – riding their potent rushing attack – were in control and on the verge of expanding their 21-17 advantage.
But on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Temple then-sophomore end Eric Shorter shot through and tackled running back Devin Brown for a 2-yard loss and a crucial, momentum-changing turnover on downs. The Wildcats then drove 96 yards, got the go-ahead 10-yard touchdown run from then-sophomore Samari Howard – one of his four rushing TDs that evening – and went on to record a hard-earned 38-28 victory.
Harrison-Pilot was Temple's starting free safety in that game as a freshman, and he blamed “our tackling problems” for Shoemaker's 271-yard rushing performance that night.
This season, the Wildcats' defense has allowed only 137 rushing yards on average and 287.6 total yards per game in the seven games it's played on the field. Temple's defense – paced by senior nose tackle Jayven Taylor, Shorter and sophomore linebacker Taurean York – will be put to the test by a speedy, potent Shoemaker offense that averages 510.7 yards per game (311.6 rushing, 199.1 passing) while being led by dual-threat senior quarterback Ty Bell and Brown, a rugged running back.
“They're so explosive. You've got to fit everything right and you've got to fit it fast,” Stewart said. “You've got to make them earn it. If they get to the second level, you're not (catching them). They're so good at extending plays, and if they get to the second level, all they need is a little space and they're going to take off to the alleys. They're just fast.”
Bell, a returning starter who rushed for two touchdowns at Temple last year, is 79-of-113 passing for 1,377 yards and 18 touchdowns against seven interceptions to go with 367 rushing yards and five TDs. Brown has rushed for 832 yards and 11 touchdowns, while shifty senior Deandre Exford has run for 444 yards and three TDs.
Bell has plenty of skilled targets in the passing game, led by small-but-fast senior Monaray Baldwin (31 catches, 604 yards, nine TDs) and senior Trent Hudson (18 receptions, 341 yards, six TDs).
“The quarterback has become a very effective passer,” Stewart said. “Last year he'd take one look and either rip it or take off running. This year he goes through his progressions."
The experience of last year's stern challenge from Shoemaker informs Stewart and Temple that the Wildcats should brace for another difficult test tonight against the Grey Wolves, who now are a year older and better in Foreman's on-the-rise program. Stewart commended Foreman for the way he's transformed Shoemaker's previously struggling program in a short amount of time thanks largely to a much more disciplined culture.
“Part of the M.O. you've got to handle with teams like this is you've got to weather the storm,” Stewart said. “Some would say (trailing) 20-0 vs. Heights or 21-10 last year vs. Shoemaker would not be 'weathering the storm' very well, but just don't let it get so far out of control. You've just got to stay the course and try to weather that storm, because you're not going to go out there and stop them.
“Killeen Ellison played them as good as anybody (21-17), and Ellison has got athletes all over the field. Other than that, Shoemaker's scoring over 50 points a game. What Heights was able to do was just kind of match that. Hopefully at some point you gain a little momentum, and you're going to have to ride that wave.”
Shoemaker has allowed 30-plus points four times in seven games and its defense might still be smarting after permitting 51 in their overtime defeat against Harker Heights.
Nonetheless, the Grey Wolves will have talented defenders across the board as they strive to contain a Temple offense whose playmakers include senior quarterback Humberto Arizmendi (1,450 passing yards, 20 touchdowns), versatile junior Howard (791 rushing yards, 11 TDs; 18 catches, 243 yards, four TDs) and senior AJ McDuffy (23 receptions, 384 yards, seven TDs) and sophomore Harrison-Pilot (28-354-4) in the receiving game.
Stewart said the Grey Wolves' defense is “very multiple” and constantly changes its defensive formations, so as to keep the opposing offense from getting too comfortable.
Senior linebacker Za'Veon Cummings leads Shoemaker with 60 tackles, Adonte Crayton has 52 stops and two interceptions and fellow senior defensive back Brandon Cray has made 40 tackles and forced three fumbles. Sophomore Zavian Tibbs – a 6-foot-3, 225-pound end/outside linebacker – paces the Wolves with seven tackles for loss, while Darmell Hollins and Dontavius Burrows also have two interceptions apiece.
“We're going to try to formation them to death and create matchups,” Stewart said. “You better not make mistakes against them.”
The prospect of winning an outright district championship is right in front of the Wildcats, but Stewart and Temple have seen enough of Shoemaker – both last year and this season – to know that tonight's road assignment will be anything but an easy one.
“A lot of our kids have been in big games. We're going to have to weather the storm,” Stewart said. “That's what you have to do.”