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  • Greg Wille

LESSON LEARNED: After overcoming big hole at Heights, Temple puts focus on 1-5 but dangerous Ellison

WRAPPED UP: Temple junior linebacker Faylin Lee (9) tackles a Harker Heights ball carrier as senior nose tackle Jayven Taylor closes in during the Wildcats' 38-36 comeback win over the Knights last Thursday night at Leo Buckley Stadium in Killeen. After rallying from an early 20-0 deficit and surviving for a key road victory, Temple (5-1) seeks to improve to 4-0 in District 12-6A when it challenges Killeen Ellison (1-5, 0-3) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium. The Wildcats beat the Eagles 64-38 last year. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to


It's a double-edged sword, a football team coming back from a large deficit such as 20-0 to win a game.

On one side, it's obviously impressive for that squad to demonstrate the wherewithal to reverse the negative momentum of a poor start and rally to pull out a victory, especially considering the amount of belief and confidence that can be developed within a group of players and coaches.

On the other side, though, there's the cold reality that the same team made the physical mistakes and/or mental lapses – it's usually both – that caused it to fall into a deep hole in the first place, which is an alarming development even when the final result gets placed in the win column.

So although a seemingly sleepwalking Temple team trailed Harker Heights 20-0 less than a minute into the second quarter last Thursday night's District 12-6A duel at Killeen's Leo Buckley Stadium, the most important takeaway for the Wildcats had to be that they made the necessary adjustments – both emotionally and strategically – to score 31 of the game's next 34 points and stave off the Knights in the fourth quarter for a 38-36 victory.

Leading into the Heights game, Temple fifth-year head coach Scott Stewart discussed the need to “bring your own atmosphere” to a Thursday evening contest at Buckley, which often lacks much buzz.

Regardless of whether the Wildcats came out flat or unfocused or simply got outplayed by the athletic and energized Knights, who were blown out by Temple in 2018 and 2019, what seems evident is that Temple (5-1 overall, 3-0 in 12-6A) learned plenty about its own strengths and weaknesses after managing to overcoming the huge first-half deficit.

“We've got to stop underestimating people,” said sophomore linebacker Taurean York, Temple's leading tackler. “People who might not look as good on film but we know they're athletic, we've got to stop underestimating them.”

Stewart's Wildcats – who were tied for the 12-6A lead with Killeen Shoemaker entering the Grey Wolves' Thursday night home game with Bryan – aim to successfully apply those lessons in their home matchup with Killeen Ellison's struggling but dangerous Eagles (1-5, 0-3) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium. Temple will play at home in three of its final four regular-season games.

“What it does is it shows a lot of resolve, and what it also does is it shows a lot of immaturity,” Stewart said Tuesday about coming back from the 20-0 deficit to sneak past Heights. “I probably overcooked that a little bit, talked about Thursday night and 'bring your own atmosphere.' What we need to bring is our attitude and our effort, and I need to stop worrying about the other crap.

“My deal is, we're going to focus on the game and not the other stuff. What brings more atmosphere is knocking people's teeth out. It ain't about people in the stands. We need to focus on the brand of football we want to play, not the atmosphere.”

Aimeer Washington already had two rushing touchdowns when Heights went ahead 20-0 a minute into the second quarter on LaPrinceton Dixon's 20-yard catch-and-run touchdown from Shaun West, but Temple answered right back with junior running back Samari Howard's 15-yard TD run 1:20 later.

The first of three touchdown passes from Humberto Arizmendi to fellow senior AJ McDuffy sliced the Wildcats' deficit to 23-15 with 3:44 remaining before halftime before senior kicker Aaron Wagaman's 28-yard field goal just before intermission made it 23-18. Arizmendi and McDuffy's second TD connection gave resurgent Temple its first lead at 24-23 only 2 minutes after halftime, then 6 minutes later Howard's 11-yard touchdown rush extended the Wildcats' advantage to 31-23.

The stubborn Knights of head coach Jerry Edwards twice scored touchdowns in the final 11½ minutes to get within two points, but York sacked West on the first 2-point try and McDuffy's 13-yard TD reception from Arizmendi with 7:44 remaining supplied Temple with a vital nine-point cushion.

“It's tough to play good people on their turf,” Stewart said. “Even when we got our heads out of our butts, we didn't completely play good, sound football.”

The Wildcats prevailed despite being outgained 419 total yards to 321 and committing three turnovers – an interception and two fumbles by Arizmendi. After the game, standouts Howard, McDuffy and York all said the key factor for Temple in its big comeback win was that it refused to panic.

“Again, we've got gutsy kids. What I do appreciate about them and what we talk about all the time is, 'Don't blink. Don't panic.' We don't panic,” Stewart said. “I think part of that is I've never asked these kids to win a game. We're going to do everything we can, but if that's all you're worried about – winning – I think you're missing the boat on teaching these kids a lesson. It's the 'why' and the 'how.'

“I have told them all year long, 'We're going to get in a hole at some point, and I don't want to see anybody blink or panic.' I don't want to see what I sometimes see on the other sideline – coaches throwing fits, kids throwing stuff. You can't recover from that. To even have a chance to dig yourself out of a hole against a team that talented, you've got to stay focused and just start chipping away.”

After sharing last year's district championship with Waco Midway and currently being tied for 12-6A's top spot, Temple certainly is experiencing the feeling of having the proverbial target on its back.

“I think we get a lot of that. It's an advantageous place to be as far as that you're considered to be at the top of the district, but you're also going to get everybody's 'A' game,” Stewart said. “To be honest, the only people who I feel didn't really look at us like that were the ones we were in (first-place) battles with. I don't think Midway or College Station ever looked (at Temple) like that.”

Productive RB Harris, Ellison remain

dangerous despite winless 12-6A mark

With a 1-5 overall record and a 1-5 mark in 12-6A, Ellison doesn't appear to be much of a threat on the road against Temple – at least on paper or on a computer/phone screen. However, the Eagles of third-year head coach Todd Wright have been on the verge of grabbing district wins several times.

In the 12-6A opener three weeks ago, they were edged 21-17 by still-unbeaten Shoemaker. The next week, Ellison was in position to kick a 31-yard field goal as time expired to beat Harker Heights, but the Eagles botched the hold and lost 35-34 in gut-wrenching fashion. And last Friday, Ellison advanced to Killeen's 15-yard line with a minute remaining but was stopped short by Kangaroos two-way star Kadarius Marshall – who scored three touchdowns – and absorbed a 27-20 defeat.

Although Ellison is winless in district and in jeopardy of falling out of the 12-6A playoff race, Temple knows that the Eagles have been close to breaking through and possess the athletic talent – including senior running back Damashja Harris and senior receiver Trejon Spiller – to pose problems.

“They're full of athletes. When you turn on the film, you see that they're not terrible. They're actually a pretty good football team,” York said about Ellison, which is 8-18 with zero playoff berths during Wright's tenure. “We just have to practice how we want to play the game.”

Last Oct. 17 at Leo Buckley Stadium, Temple dominated Ellison en route to a 43-8 halftime lead, but Harris – who rushed for 212 yards with a 64-yard touchdown – and elusive then-senior quarterback Breezion Spiller sparked the Eagles as they outscored the Wildcats 30-21 in the second half of Temple's 64-38 shootout win.

Howard contributed three 2-yard touchdown runs as the Wildcats rushed for 368 yards and had 544 overall, while Ellison produced 366 rushing yards, 477 total yards and 25 first downs.

Spiller graduated, but Harris is back and has rushed for 683 yards and five touchdowns on 89 carries, racking up 161 yards against Shoemaker and 208 yards and two TDs against Heights. York said the speed and physical style of the 6-foot-1, 198-pound Harris reminds him of Tennessee Titans star running back Derrick Henry.

“He did last year, too, but he's really shown this year that if there's not a hole, he's willing to make one,” Stewart said of Harris. “You've got to get into his gears before he gets unwound. If you don't make him redirect before he crosses the line of scrimmage, he's falling forward and it's usually for a minimum of 6 or 7 yards.

“They ran roughshod over us last year, but if we had any success it was just trying to get him to stop, start and stop. At least that gives you a decent chance. I've yet to see him get hit and go backward once he gets to that second level.”

Ellison's top target in the passing game is the 6-3, 180-pound Trejon Spiller, who's made 33 receptions for 677 yards and seven touchdowns. He burned Hurst Bell for 214 yards and two TDs on nine catches in the Eagles' only win this season, 40-22 on Oct. 8.

Faleifa Mauga (5-11, 180) succeeded Breezion Spiller as the Eagles' quarterback and the senior has performed well, completing 82 of 129 passes for 1,292 yards and 11 TDs against six interceptions. He threw for 273 yards against Killeen last week. Senior running back Ezekiel Sheridan and senior receiver Traelen Williams also are effective weapons.

Spearheading the Eagles defense is 6-5, 242-pound junior end Devonte Tezino, an imposing force who owns a team-best 41 tackles (31 solo) after collecting six sacks in 2019. Ellison's other top defenders include senior linebackers James Williams and Julio Ramirez with 32 tackles each, junior linebacker Calvin Harper (31 stops) and sophomore tackle Brendan Bett.

Said Temple offensive coordinator Josh Sadler about the Eagles' defense: “They play fast, they play hard and they scheme up a lot of different stuff.”

Stewart one win away from tying Spradlin

with 44 victories as Temple head coach

With his team in the middle of district competition and striving to fix the problems it encountered last week, Stewart doesn't have the time – or the inclination – to sit around and ponder how many games he's won in five seasons as Temple's head coach.

However, it is a fact that Stewart's next victory will be his 44th as the Wildcats' leader and will match the total of his predecessor Mike Spradlin, who compiled a 44-17 record as Temple's head coach from 2011-15. That was highlighted by a 25-4 mark with eight playoff wins during his final two years with Stewart serving as his defensive coordinator.

“Really? I didn't even know,” Stewart said when told about being on the verge of matching Spradlin's 44 wins, although he wasn't exactly moved upon learning that information. “I have more respect for that man than anybody knows, but I don't give a rip how many wins he has. I love him to death, but that and a quarter won't even get you a phone call these days.”

Both men guided the Wildcats to eight playoff wins and an appearance in a Class 5A Division I state championship game – Spradlin in 2014 and Stewart in his debut season of 2016. Stewart is 43-15 in his first head coaching job for a .741 winning percentage, slightly better than the .721 figure that Spradlin – now in his second season as head coach at Rockwall-Heath – posted while jump-starting Temple's previously struggling program.

The Wildcats are 68-19 overall (.782) with 16 playoff wins since Stewart joined the staff in 2014. At 3-0 in district, Temple is moving toward its eighth straight postseason appearance, which would cover Spradlin's final three seasons and Stewart's first five.

“I don't know who's done what. I've had people talk to me about streaks, and I just do not care,” Stewart said. “We obviously know what rewards and awards are out there, but the only thing you can do is get a little closer or a little farther away. That's all we can take care of this week.”

District 12-6A playoff picture

beginning to come into view

Many important games remain before District 12-6A's championship and four playoff qualifiers are determined, but the postseason picture is starting to take shape in Week 7 for the league's eight teams.

Temple and Shoemaker are steamrolling toward claiming half of 12-6A's four playoff spots. They entered the week tied for first place at 3-0, then the Grey Wolves (6-0 overall) improved to 4-0 by beating Bryan 42-30 on Thursday night at Killeen's Leo Buckley Stadium. Temple and coach Toby Foreman's Shoemaker squad will clash on Thursday, Nov. 19 at Buckley in a showdown that could decide the district championship.

Bryan's late rally to beat Belton last Friday left those two teams tied for third place at 2-1, with Harker Heights and Killeen sharing fifth at 1-2. Ellison and Copperas Cove are tied for seventh/last at 0-3, on the verge of falling out of playoff contention.

The 12-6A picture got somewhat murkier Tuesday when Belton had to postpone its scheduled Friday home game against Heights because of COVID-19 reasons within the Tigers' football program. Then on Friday afternoon, Belton first-year head coach Brett Sniffin announced in a statement that the Tigers will be unable to play Temple next Friday in their scheduled rivalry game at Wildcat Stadium.

It's unknown when the Temple-Belton and Belton-Heights games will be made up. Also, Friday's Cove-Killeen game was postponed because of health concerns within the Cove school school district.

As for which divisions 12-6A's four playoff qualifiers will compete in for the 6A state playoffs, Belton and Ellison – the schools with the league's largest enrollments – can only advance in the Division I bracket, while Temple and Cove can only be in Division II because they have the district's smallest enrollments. The so-called swing schools who could compete in either D-I or D-II are, from largest to smallest, Heights, Shoemaker, Killeen and Bryan.

The district that 12-6A's playoff squads will match up with in the bi-district round is 11-6A, which has three teams ranked in the 6A state top 10 by Texas Football magazine: No. 2 Duncanville, No. 6 DeSoto and No. 10 Cedar Hill. Duncanville (3-1, 2-0) – runner-up in the last two 6A Division I state championship games – and DeSoto (4-0, 2-0) can only compete in the D-I bracket, meaning they are not potential playoff opponents for Temple but could run into Belton for bi-district action.

Cedar Hill (4-0, 2-0) appears to be on its way to a D-II playoff berth and likely will be joined there by Midway (1-4, 1-1) – Temple's former district nemesis – or Mansfield (2-3, 1-1).

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