MISSION-FOCUSED: Stewart downplays streaks as league-leading Temple travels to battle nemesis Midway
TEMPLE'S TOUCHDOWN CONNECTION: Temple senior wide receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot (right) and junior quarterback Reese Rumfield celebrate after they hooked up for a 37-yard touchdown in the third quarter of the Wildcats' 32-19 win over Pflugerville Weiss last Friday at Wildcat Stadium. Harrison-Pilot caught an 81-yard TD pass from Rumfield earlier in the third. District 12-6A co-leader Temple (4-2, 2-0) travels to Hewitt's Panther Stadium on Friday to play nemesis Waco Midway (1-5, 1-1) at 7:30 p.m. The Wildcats are 0-6 against the Panthers in a series that dates to 2012. Temple has won 17 straight games against 12-6A competition since its 52-28 loss at Midway in 2019. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
HEWITT – It is a fact that the Temple Wildcats have won their last 17 football games in District 12-6A play, a streak that dates to 2019.
It also is a fact that Waco Midway, whose traditionally strong program made 13 consecutive playoff appearances from 2007-19, has recorded only four victories against 21 losses in the last three seasons, a .160 winning percentage.
However, it also is a fact that Temple’s most recent district defeat occurred against Midway, 52-28 on Nov. 1, 2019 at Panther Stadium in Hewitt. That gave the Wildcats an 0-6 record against the Panthers – who have outscored them 281-167 – in a series that began in 2012.
But if all those facts were written on a piece of paper, Scott Stewart’s natural inclination would be to crumple that paper into a ball and toss it into the nearest trash can.
To hear Temple’s seventh-year head coach tell it, he doesn’t concern himself with streaks, trends, who somebody’s nemesis is or anything of that ilk.
So as the first-place Wildcats (4-2 overall, 2-0 in 12-6A) prepare to battle Midway (1-5, 1-1) at 7:30 Friday night at Panther Stadium, Stewart insists that breaking Temple’s losing streak against the Panthers is not something he even thinks about.
“I don’t. If we beat somebody 85 years in a row or if we’ve never scored a touchdown on somebody, it doesn’t affect it,” Stewart said Tuesday afternoon near Wildcat Stadium, where last Friday night Temple overcame a slow start and a 13-10 halftime deficit with a sharp second half to beat first-time opponent Pflugerville Weiss 32-19. “So no, I don’t worry about that.”
Stewart won his first two games as Temple’s head coach in 2016. His first loss with a Wildcats group that eventually reached the Class 5A Division I state championship game? A turnover-plagued 20-16 non-district defeat at Midway, which was in its first season with head coach Jeff Hulme.
The Panthers prevailed 40-28 at Wildcat Stadium a year later en route to a state title game trip in 6A, then denied the Wildcats two straight seasons as 12-6A foes: 31-28 at Temple in 2018 and 52-28 at Midway in 2019, when the teams shared the 12-6A championship.
After the Weiss game, Temple seniors and four-year starters Mikal Harrison-Pilot and Taurean York spoke openly about their hunger to beat Midway and gain a measure of payback for that painful 24-point loss at Panther Stadium almost three years ago.
“That’s a revenge game for me. My freshman year was the last time we played Midway, and it was a bad game,” said standout wide receiver Harrison-Pilot, who was Temple’s free safety in 2019 while York played middle linebacker. “This year I want to get revenge, so I’m going to come with everything I’ve got and hopefully come out with a W.”
Stewart certainly understands that sentiment, but in his position he remains focused on putting Temple’s best possible product on the field, regardless of who’s on the opposite sideline. As such, the coach hasn’t put any extra emphasis on winning this week because Midway is the opponent. Midway simply happens to be the Wildcats’ next adversary.
“There are two incontrovertible facts in this world. One is that there is a God and I ain’t Him. And number 2 is that chemistry as it affects a football team, and the production of any team, is real. So you could have 17 starters returning and still have a different chemistry. To me, that’s the key,” Stewart said. “My job is to get the best chemistry we can possibly get, week in and week out, year in and year out. I really, truly don’t worry about anything else.
“I’m not going to be able to manufacture athleticism. I’m not going to be able to manufacture bigger kids. I don’t worry about who’s beaten who. I truly believe you can’t measure heart, guts and (intestinal) fortitude. There’s no scale or star system or recruiting database base for that. Those are the intangibles. If you get enough of those kind of guys, I don’t care how big you are.”
With Shane Anderson in his second season as Midway’s head coach, the Panthers have only one win entering their seventh game following a 24-13 loss at co-leader Harker Heights last week. In addition, most indications point to dynamic Midway junior quarterback Junior Thornton not playing against Temple because he had his throwing arm in a sling after being injured during the fourth quarter at Heights.
Not surprisingly, Stewart said the Wildcats cannot afford to overlook Midway because of the Panthers’ record or Thornton’s probable absence Friday night.
“If you do that, you’re going to go out there and get your butt handed to you. That’s facts,” said Stewart, who pointed out that Midway – whose defense permitted only 17 points against the Knights – contended well into the fourth quarter before Heights defender Deaubry Hood returned an interception from the back of the end zone all the way for a victory-sealing touchdown.
Temple junior quarterback and second-year starter Reese Rumfield said that a consistent, stay-in-the-moment approach has served the Wildcats well, giving them no reason to change it going into the matchup at Midway.
“We keep it one week at a time. We don’t think about the future. We don’t think about the past and all the wins and stuff. Every week’s a new week and a new game, so we’re thinking of that like we’re 0-0,” said Rumfield, who’s passed for 1,343 yards and 13 touchdowns this season after third-quarter scoring strikes of 81 and 37 yards to Harrison-Pilot highlighted his 210-yard output against Weiss.
Midway struggled to a 1-9 mark last year – getting outscored 465-217 – in Anderson’s debut season after he guided Waco Connally to three straight playoff berths from 2018-20, but sophomore receiver Thornton provided a bright spot for the Panthers by making 47 catches for 924 yards and nine touchdowns as they took their lumps in a rugged 11-6A that featured Duncanville, DeSoto, Cedar Hill and Waxahachie.
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Thornton played receiver for this season’s first three games, losses of 17-plus points against Mansfield, Odessa Permian and Leander Vandegrift. But after the 45-0 setback against Vandergrift at Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Crusader Stadium in Belton, Midway decided to shake up its offense by moving the speedy, shifty Thornton (18 catches, 324 yards, two TDs) to quarterback.
Although Midway lost 52-24 to Rockwall-Heath in Thornton’s first start at QB, the change paid immediate dividends in terms of big-play production. He ran 22 times for 260 yards and three touchdowns, then played a huge role in a district-opening 48-37 home win over Hutto for the Panthers’ first victory.
Thornton carried 18 times for 210 yards and three touchdowns and passed for 161 yards and two TDs as Midway’s offense decimated the Hippos. Last week at Harker Heights, Thornton raced for a 53-yard gain on the Panthers’ first snap, but the Knights’ stubborn defense limited him to 36 yards on his final 15 carries and he was 6-of-9 passing for 40 yards.
Thornton rushed for 563 yards and six touchdowns in his first three starts at quarterback, but he appeared to land hard on his right (throwing) shoulder on a second-half run toward the right sideline. He did not return to the game and was wearing a sling during the teams’ postgame handshake line.
“That game kind of changed when he went out,” Stewart said about Thornton, who was replaced at QB by senior Reid Tedford, the previous starter.
Regardless of any mentions or indications this week that the dangerous Thornton won’t be available to play against Temple, Stewart said his team is planning as if Thornton will be on the field and seeking to do more damage.
“I’m always going to expect him to play. Our plan is that he’s there, and he’s one of the better athletes in the district,” Stewart said about Thornton, who’s received scholarship offers from Texas-San Antonio and Georgia Southern. “Man, can he run. He’s shifty, he’s got good vision and he’s hard to tackle. He’s very dismissive. He can absolutely roll.”
If Thornton can’t play against Temple, Midway’s QB will be the 6-7, 225-pound Tedford, a towering pocket passer who’s the son of Midway strength and conditioning coordinator Ryan Tedford. Stewart and Tedford were college teammates at Sam Houston State in the mid-1990s.
Reid Tedford, who passed for 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns last season while splitting playing time, is 37-of-83 passing this year for 520 yards and four TDs with five interceptions. He threw the end-zone interception that Hood brought back essentially 109 yards for a touchdown.
Senior running back Dom Hill (6-0, 195) is an effective workhorse for Midway. He rushed for 880 yards and eight touchdowns last season and has accumulated 502 yards and four TDs on 113 carries this year.
One of the key blockers on Midway’s hulking offensive line is 6-6, 290-pound senior Garrett Morphis, who’s verbally committed to Texas Tech.
On the defensive side, Midway allowed 508 yards (324 passing) in its district-opening home win over Hutto but responded with a better performance last week at Harker Heights. The Panthers permitted 224 rushing yards and 327 overall while limiting the Knights’ offense to 17 points.
Senior strong safety Adrian Melvin leads Midway’s odd-front defense – which often gets into a five-man “bear” look – with 70 tackles and was described by Temple first-year offensive coordinator Robby Case as “a really good football player.”
Case also identified sophomore free safety Landon Whisenton (50 tackles), junior cornerback Reggie Jones and sophomore outside linebacker Donovan Jones as skilled performers. Junior linebacker Esrom Martinez ranks second on the team with 56 stops, junior Kannon Clendenin has 44 and junior safety Phillip Minnitt has 29.
The Wildcats’ offense hopes to get on the field much earlier than it did last week against Weiss.
The Wolves had the game’s first possession and drove to Temple’s 40-yard line, then on their seventh play sophomore Jax Brown’s short pass was intercepted near midfield by senior linebacker Jaylon Jackson. He was stripped of the ball while trying to return it for a touchdown. Senior defensive back Naeten Mitchell had an opportunity to recover the ball inside the 20 but couldn’t corral it, and a Weiss lineman fell on it at the 8 for technically a new possession but essentially a continuation of the same one.
A few plays later Mitchell broke through the protection scheme, blocked the Wolves’ punt in the end zone and pounced on the ball for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead 5 minutes into the game. Weiss received the ensuing kickoff and kept the ball for 5 more minutes before punting it back to Temple.
Only 1:56 remained in the 12-minute opening period when an impatient Wildcat offense finally was able to leave the sideline and get on the field to take its first snap.
“We were getting real antsy, because it was like half the game. We were all aching to get out there on the field,” Rumfield said. “It’s never been that long. That was crazy.”
From his perch with Temple’s coaches in the press box, Case also didn’t quite know what to do with himself.
“That was the weirdest thing I’ve ever done. I looked at my watch and it was 25 minutes on the real, live clock between when we kicked off and when our offense saw the field,” Case recalled with a grin. “We got six plays and then the quarter was over, and we were still on the first drive. That was interesting.”
Temple’s first three possessions ended on two punts wrapped around a Rumfield lost fumble that led to a Weiss touchdown pass for a 7-7 deadlock 4 minutes into the second quarter.
The Wildcats allowed another TD pass 4 minutes before halftime to fall behind 13-7, then their offense generated its first points when Marcos Garcia kicked a 28-yard field goal with 26 seconds remaining – immediately after a receiver couldn’t catch Rumfield’s well-thrown pass in the end zone.
“I think my eyeballs are on consistency. We’ve got to get consistent. We weren’t consistent the other night. We were in some places, but it was kind of a weird flow,” Stewart said. “They go on a nine-play drive, we pick a screen and fumble it right back to them and they have another drive. That’s about 20 plays before our offense even took the field.
"We get one first down and punt it, the next series we have a one-play fumble and the next series we go three-and-out. Then the fourth drive we had was nine plays for a field goal. So that’s the consistency part. Again, some of that is attributed to the other team.”
But once the second half began, Temple’s inconsistent offense hit its stride. Rumfield’s pass to Harrison-Pilot along the right side went for a go-ahead 81-yard touchdown 54 seconds into the third period, then 6 minutes later Harrison-Pilot snared Rumfield’s accurate throw on a post pattern for a 37-yard TD and a 25-13 Wildcats advantage.
“I love it. I think we’re just building connections, and it’s about relationships. We’ve come a long way on that and the offense is going great,” said Rumfield, who’s passed for 3,174 yards and 37 touchdowns in his first 18 career starts. “With the new schemes and new plays we have, it’s awesome. We’re just getting the hang of it, and then once we get rolling, we’re rolling.”
Rumfield added a 1-yard touchdown run with 17 seconds remaining. He rushed for only one TD last year as a 160-pound sophomore, but after adding 20 pounds of muscle during the offseason Rumfield already has run for three TDs this season.
Added Case about the Weiss game: “We ended up only running about 43 plays of offense, but that was part of the circumstances. We only had two three-and-outs on nine drives and we moved the ball pretty good. It just felt weird.”
Stewart found at least a little bit of humor in the fact that Temple seems to play better after absorbing some of halftime tongue-lashings.
“In the second half, I thought our offense played really well – at least more consistent. That’s going to be the tale of the tape, is can we start a game like that? Like, I’m going to stop working so hard on the weekends and Monday through Thursday if all it takes is a butt-chewing at halftime,” Stewart said with a chuckle. “My dad (former longtime baseball and football coach Larry Stewart) said, ‘Whatever you tell these kids at halftime, you need to bottle that up and we could buy a ranch in South Texas.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know that that’s for public consumption.’
“While we’re doing the school song, he comes up and grabs my shoulders and whispers, ‘You do realize this game is four quarters, right?’ He ain’t going to sugar-coat nothing, and I appreciate it. You never have to wonder where you stand. He does give credit where credit is due. He’s like, ‘Y’all are the best halftime adjustment coaching staff I’ve ever seen,’ and he’s been around a long time.”
Temple’s active defense of coordinator Dexter Knox allowed only one second-half touchdown against Weiss, a 1-yard run by Rice commitment Daelen Alexander late in the third quarter, and the Wildcats permitted only 243 yards overall a week after they allowed 260 in their 53-19 victory at Bryan.
“I thought our defense played well. We did a good job, because we were trying to show a young but Power Five-caliber quarterback some different looks,” Stewart said. “The explosive plays showed up on the scoreboard, but we held Alexander in check with a light box against the huge offensive line they had.”
Junior wide receiver Tavion Flowers has provided another physical weapon for Temple’s offensive attack in the two games since he was activated on varsity. He’s made three catches in each game and totaled 50 yards.
Flowers’ contributions could become more important against Midway if injured big-play sophomore wide receiver Christian Tutson (13 catches, 326 yards, six touchdowns) misses his second straight game.
Stewart said he learned last Monday that Tutson had suffered what the coach termed “an upper-body contusion” in Temple’s 34-20 home win over Willis on Sept. 2. Tutson played through discomfort as he sparked the Wildcats by scoring two touchdowns against Willis, three total TDs a week later in the loss at College Station, two TDs in a home loss to state-ranked Arlington Martin and one TD at Bryan.
“Tutson has an upper-body contusion and it really flared up on him I guess Monday of last week. (Temple’s team physicians) said there was enough there to give him a week (off vs. Weiss),” said Stewart, adding that he “had no idea” Tutson had been playing through the injury. “It’s going to be a day-by-day (situation). The doctor said (Tutson can return to playing) when he can work out with no pain.”
Stewart was non-committal on Thursday when asked if Tutson will play against Midway, while the Panthers are expected to be without Thornton, their top weapon.
One sure thing is that Stewart wants his squad to beat Midway. That's not because the Wildcats are 0-6 against the Panthers, of course. It’s simply because Midway is this week’s opponent and the obstacle standing between Temple and a 1-0 week – well, that, the Wildcats’ 18th straight victory in 12-6A competition and, depending on who’s talking, maybe even some long-awaited revenge for the guys wearing the blue-front, white-back pants.
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