SCRIPT FLIPPED: Sanford, Heights overtake Temple in second half, defeat Wildcats 13-9 for 12-6A lead
Updated: Oct 23, 2022
PHYSICAL MATCHUP: Senior linebacker Taurean York (5) and another Temple defender combine to tackle Harker Heights senior running back Re'Shaun Sanford II as Naeten Mitchell (4) and Teryon Williams-Echols close in during the Wildcats' 13-9 loss to the Knights on Friday night at Leo Buckley Stadium in Killeen. Temple kept Sanford out of the end zone, but the reigning District 12-6A MVP rushed for 148 of his 194 yards in the second half to help Heights (7-1, 4-0) snap the 19-game district winning streak of defending champion Temple (6-3, 4-1) and clinch the Knights' fourth straight playoff berth. (Photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
KILLEEN – In District 12-6A football’s highly anticipated de facto championship game Friday night, Temple didn’t allow a point in the first 31 minutes and never let Harker Heights star senior running back Re’Shaun Sanford II reach the end zone.
Those two things could have been – maybe should have been – vital ingredients in a winning recipe to produce the Wildcats’ 20th consecutive district victory and clinch at least a share of their fourth straight 12-6A title.
However, the Knights were an extremely determined team on a clear, breezy evening at packed Leo Buckley Stadium, where the Wildcats had won their last 19 games.
Determined to beat nemesis Temple after watching three-touchdown first-half leads evaporate in shootout losses to the resilient Wildcats in the rivals’ 2020 and 2021 showdowns.
Determined to show that its experienced, stingy defense could shut down Temple’s big-play, high-scoring offense.
And undoubtedly determined not only to clinch a playoff berth but also to prove that the gold ball award for the 2022 district championship belongs in the Harker Heights trophy case.
Even the fact that the Knights trailed 9-0 after 2½ quarters didn’t dampen their determination. Heights took advantage of a pivotal third-quarter interception by getting Dylan Plake’s 36-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Johnson, then Aimeer Washington rushed for the go-ahead 10-yard TD early in the fourth.
Temple’s offense sputtered as it didn’t record a first down in the final 1½ periods, and the Sanford-led Knights drained the clock to 0:00 with a physical, ball-hogging 16-play drive to earn a 13-9 victory and most likely end the Wildcats’ long reign atop the district.
“Most teams we play are going to be bigger and obviously Harker Heights was a little bit faster than we were, but hat’s off to Coach (Jerry) Edwards’ crew. They wanted it more. The best team always wins and they were the best team tonight,” said Temple seventh-year head coach Scott Stewart, whose program hadn’t lost a district game since Nov. 1, 2019 at Waco Midway.
“We’ve still got our best football in front of us,” he added. “I thought after 24 minutes that might have been the best football we’ve played, even though we didn’t score a whole lot of points and missed some opportunities. But again, Harker Heights is a big reason for that.”
For prolific three-year standout Sanford and Harker Heights (7-1 overall, 4-0 in district) teammates, the high-stakes win against defending champion Temple (6-3, 4-1) was a long time coming, as evidenced by their hearty on-field celebration.
“It’s an amazing feeling to finally beat them. The past two years we were up and they came back and beat us, so for us to come back and flip the script, it feels good. It feels like destiny,” said reigning 12-6A Most Valuable Player Sanford, the Houston-committed workhorse who racked up 148 yards on 16 second-half carries to finish with 194 yards on 25 rushes as Heights secured its fourth straight postseason trip.
Tenth-year head coach Edwards entered 0-7 against Temple, with five mostly lopsided losses before Heights' pair of close, crushing defeats the last two seasons. His Knights had to go through the Wildcats to get what they wanted, and they made enough key plays in crunch time to finally overtake Temple.
“We stressed all week that we’ve accomplished a lot at Harker Heights and checked a lot of boxes, and that was one we hadn’t been able to check, beating Temple and hopefully get in the driver’s seat for a district championship,” Edwards said after his Knights improved to 14-1 in their last 15 district games. “We still have to finish out the regular season, but it puts us in a good spot. I’m just super excited for our kids and their resiliency to come out in the second half and beat a good football team.”
POWER PLAY: Temple senior running back Deshaun Brundage plows through a Harker Heights defender to score a 6-yard touchdown 2 minutes into the game Friday night at Killeen's Leo Buckley Stadium. That was the Wildcats' only TD as the Knights outscored them 13-0 in the second half to win 13-9 and hand Temple its first District 12-6A defeat since 2019. The Wildcats' offense was limited to 13 plays and 42 yards after halftime. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Temple clinched its 10th consecutive playoff berth last Friday as Taurean York’s 2-yard touchdown catch from Reese Rumfield with 42 seconds remaining gave the Wildcats a 31-27 comeback win over Hutto on homecoming. But against the fast, sure-tackling, experienced defense of Harker Heights, Temple never scored a touchdown after Deshaun Brundage’s 6-yard TD run 2 minutes into the game.
In fact, the Wildcats had only 13 offensive snaps and 42 yards after halftime and ran just three plays in the final quarter as the Knights used their sturdy running attack – featuring Sanford and complemented by Washington – to play an effective game of keepaway.
“I thought we played well in the third quarter. That fourth quarter, I mean, I think we were on the field 89, 90, 92 plays. I don’t know how much it was, but I’ve got bigger concerns on the other side of the ball,” said Stewart, whose defense was missing four starters because of injuries. “Now, we can’t let a 20-play drive or whatever that was happen, but those kids (on defense) played their guts out. They’re exhausted.
“We’ve got to figure out what we’re trying to do on offense, because that’s unacceptable. We couldn’t pee a drop in the second half, and hat’s off to Heights for that. But gosh dang, I don’t know how you move the ball up and down the field in the first half and stall in the red zone and then in the second half we looked like we had never played offense in our life. We’ve got to go back to the drawing board and take a look at what we’re doing.”
All-state middle linebacker and four-year starter York said the Wildcats were unable to maintain their sharpness and focus after building a 9-0 lead on Mateo Lopez’s 46-yard field goal midway through the second quarter.
“I don’t think Harker Heights did anything different. They came out with the same gameplan they had in the first half. I just think we lost our focus and guys got complacent,” said York, the two-time 12-6A Defensive MVP. “I gathered the whole team together and told them, ‘Don’t get complacent. This game’s not over. That gold ball is the standard.’ But we lost focus as a team and we didn’t put up any points (in the second half).
“It’s little things that we’ve got to work on. We talk about the little things, and some people might not be taking those seriously. You’ve got to take that stuff seriously, and we’ve seen that firsthand with this game and the College Station game. When we lose, it’s because of us, not anything that (the opponent) did.”
Temple still could gain a share of the 12-6A championship if it follows its open date next week with a home win over last-place Copperas Cove (2-6, 0-4) in the Nov. 4 regular-season finale and Harker Heights loses either of its final two games – at Cove next week and home against third-place Bryan (5-3, 2-2) on Nov. 4.
“It’s amazing right now. We’re the top dogs now, so we’ve got to stay on it and we’ve got to keep pushing and stay level-headed. We can’t get complacent,” said Sanford, whose squad is on track to host a Division II bi-district playoff game at Buckley.
Depending on which two teams join Temple and Heights as 12-6A’s four playoff qualifiers, the Wildcats likely will venture into the postseason as the district’s second seed in the Division II bracket or as the league’s top seed in Division I.
HOLDING ON: Temple senior wide receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot (7) gets grabbed by a Harker Heights defender during the Wildcats' 13-9 loss to the Knights on Friday night at Leo Buckley Stadium in Killeen. Harrison-Pilot's 48-yard catch-and-run from Reese Rumfield set up Deshaun Brundage's 6-yard touchdown rush 2 minutes into the game. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Although it didn’t turn out to be a sign of things to come, Temple got off to a great start in the much-hyped duel at Heights.
On the second offensive play, senior Mikal Harrison-Pilot caught Rumfield’s pass on the right side and sprinted to the Knights’ 25-yard line for a 48-yard outburst.
Harrison-Pilot then gained 8 yards on a sweep and rugged senior Brundage rushed for 4 and 7 yards to reach the 6 before Brundage grabbed the high direct snap and crashed through defenders at the goal line to score a touchdown 1:59 into the game. Temple went for the 2-point conversion out of a swinging gate formation, but the shotgun snap to York was low and he was swarmed by Heights, keeping the Wildcats’ lead at 6-0.
Despite the productive start, Temple didn’t get into the end zone in the final 46 minutes after the Wildcats scored a combined 82 points in their last two meetings with the Knights.
Seven minutes into the opening period, Alexander Bailey appeared to make a key play for Heights as he caught Plake’s slant pass for a would-be first down near midfield. But Temple senior cornerback Steve Jackson aggressively stripped the ball away from Bailey, giving the Wildcats possession at the Heights 48.
Temple’s offense then tried to take Heights by surprise on the next play, with most of the Wildcats in a huddle near their sideline. Normally an offensive tackle, Jeremiah Mungia snapped the ball out wide left to Harrison-Pilot, who had a convoy of blockers and might have scored on a trick play the Knights' defense wasn't ready for. However, an official darted in and whistled the play dead because the play clock had not started, a call that disgusted Stewart.
After York sacked Plake for a 7-yard loss on third down, Temple took over at its 18 3 minutes into the second quarter and embarked on its second scoring drive. Brundage delivered productive runs and Rumfield completed passes to juniors Tavion Flowers and Jaquon Butler and sophomore Christian Tutson as the Wildcats marched to the Knights 18.
The drive bogged down with a penalty and a Rumfield third-down fumble that guard Seth Martinez recovered at the 29. That gave Lopez a scoring opportunity with the wind at his back, and the burly, strong-legged senior kicked a 46-yard field goal that caromed off the left upright and in to extend Temple’s advantage to 9-0 with 5:11 remaining in the first half.
Temple’s active defense then continued to perform well by delivering a three-and-out series, and Tutson beat double coverage near the left sideline to make a sliding catch of Rumfield’s pass for a 39-yard gain to the Heights 27. The Wildcats advanced as far as the 17, but the Knights invaded the backfield to stop Rumfield for losses of 6 and 9 yards, leaving Temple at the 28 with 14 seconds left.
Lopez came out to attempt another 46-yard field goal, but the snap was too high for new holder Ethan Magana, who replaced junior Damarion Willis in that role after starting safety Willis suffered a broken collarbone against Hutto. Lopez recovered the bouncing ball and tried to run with it, but he fumbled it and Kaden Butler made the recovery for Heights at Temple’s 39.
The Wildcats had to settle for a 9-0 halftime lead after limiting the fast, shifty Sanford – who came in with 1,326 rushing yards this season and 5,100 in his career – to nine carries for 46 yards, none longer than 11 yards.
“Coach always tells me to just keep grinding. I know I can get 5 yards, 5 yards. I’m satisfied with that. That’s OK,” said Sanford, who rushed for 219 yards and two touchdowns at Temple last year. “It’s not going to pop every time, but I know if I stay consistent and break them down from what I’ve seen on film, then we can keep pounding it and eventually it’ll pop like it did in the second half.”
FORCE UP THE MIDDLE: Temple senior defensive lineman Jaylon Jackson (0) penetrates the middle and partially blocks a 38-yard field goal attempt by Harker Heights kicker Jai'den Fletcher during the third quarter of the Wildcats' 13-9 loss to the Knights on Friday night at Leo Buckley Stadium in Killeen. Jackson has blocked three field goals in the last two games and four overall during District 12-6A play. (Photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
On the third quarter’s second snap, it finally popped for Sanford as he cut back across the field for a 50-yard dash before senior safety Jaylon Hall corralled him at the 23. But the next three runs – none by Sanford – netted only 2 yards, and a 38-yard field goal attempt into the wind by Jai’den Fletcher sailed wide right after being partially blocked by Jaylon Jackson. It was the senior lineman’s third blocked field goal in two weeks and fourth in district play.
Temple still had the momentum at that point, but not for much longer.
On third-and-8 from the Wildcats 43, Rumfield’s crossing pass into traffic was intercepted by senior linebacker Jeremy Jennings, the Knights’ top tackler, at the Heights 44 midway through the third.
Sanford rushed for 8 and 15 yards to help the Knights advance to the 30, but Temple’s defense then put Heights in a third-and-16 predicament at the 36. The Wildcats dropped eight players into pass coverage, but the Knights still found a way to break through.
Sophomore receiver Johnson beat one defensive back to catch Plake’s well-thrown pass at the 10 and crashed through another defender to score at the right pylon for a 36-yard touchdown before Fletcher’s extra point cut Temple’s lead to 9-7 with 4½ minutes remaining in the third.
“They’re good on defense and Reese made a bad throw (on the interception), but the busted coverage on the touchdown is what killed us,” Stewart said. “You could see the different looks in their eyes. Again, these kids don’t quit and they’re going to fight until the very end, but I think that’s where it started sliding right there.”
Said York, whose 76-yard touchdown return of Plake’s fumble sealed Temple’s 44-34 home win over Heights a year ago: “We were dropping eight people and that’s a three-man front right there, so the fact that anything got behind us, it’s ridiculous. It’s little things like that, and little things will get you beat."
York said he sensed the momentum changing after the Knights finally dented the Wildcats’ defense to get on the scoreboard.
“We were still winning at that point. (But) you could just feel a nasty aura on our sideline, and I didn’t understand that,” the Baylor-committed York said. “I told them, ‘We’re still winning 9-7. Calm down. Nothing has changed.’ But when it flipped, the experience showed. Those (Heights) guys know what it’s like to be up and then blow the lead. We were up and we blew the lead too, so experience comes in whenever you have four starters out on defense and you’re playing with guys who haven’t gotten a lot of burn. The experience shows in games like this.”
The Harker Heights defense came in allowing only 17 points and 259 yards per game, and the increasingly feisty Knights didn’t permit Temple to record a first down in the game’s final 1½ quarters.
“This is the best defense I’ve seen at Harker Heights,” Sanford said. “They’ve worked so hard. They fly around and they hit. They’re not afraid to go hit anybody in the mouth. They’re fast, they’re big, they’re strong. I’m very proud of those guys. They’re amazing.”
GOING LOW: Temple sophomore wide receiver Christian Tutson beats two Harker Heights defenders to make a sliding catch of Reese Rumfield's deep pass for a 39-yard gain during the second quarter of the Wildcats' 13-9 loss to the Knights in Friday night's District 12-6A showdown at Leo Buckley Stadium in Killeen. (Photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
One minute into the fourth, Temple’s defense had a prime opportunity to force Heights off the field and give the Wildcat offense a shot to extend its slim lead. But on third-and-10 from the Knights’ 46, Sanford caught Plake’s pass across the middle, broke a tackle and raced for a crucial 44-yard gain before Teryon Williams-Echols stopped him at the 10.
On the next play, the powerful Washington (39 yards on 14 carries) – who as a sophomore rushed for three touchdowns in Temple’s 38-36 comeback win at Buckley – ran straight ahead and broke multiple tackles for a 10-yard touchdown that gave Heights its first lead at 13-9 with 10:33 remaining. York stopped Sanford on the ensuing 2-point run up the middle.
After Jervonnie Williams gained 3 yards to the Temple 34 on third-and-4, Stewart decided to punt with 8:38 left and trust his defense to give the Wildcats another opportunity to produce the go-ahead score after doing exactly that to overcome Hutto a week earlier.
But it never came.
Taking over at its 21, Harker Heights employed a physical ground game to chew up yards and clock and keep Temple’s frustrated offense watching from the sideline. Operating against a game but tiring defense, Sanford rushed eight times and Washington four times as the unrelenting Knights picked up six first downs and marched deep into Wildcats territory.
Sanford raced off left tackle for a 16-yard gain to the 2 with a minute remaining, and with only two timeouts left Temple couldn’t prevent Plake from retreating and kneeling three times to complete the Knights' satisfying breakthrough win against the Wildcats.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our line. Amazing,” Sanford said. “They work so hard and they really won the game for us. We couldn’t do what we do without them.”
Said York: “We had them bottled up. But fatigue was a factor, experience was a factor and a loss of focus was definitely a factor.”
Stewart dismissed the notion that limiting Heights to 13 points on the road should have been sufficient for Temple to prevail and clinch another 12-6A championship.
“It wasn’t, so I don’t worry about what should be good enough to win,” Stewart said. “We started two kids tonight (on defense who before this season) haven’t played football since middle school. That’s what we got and that’s the best we got, so no excuses there. We’ve got to play better up front, and again, we’ve got to move the dadgum football on offense.
“I’m listening on the headset and we screwed up too many plays – a half-dozen or more – where we didn’t even block some of their defensive linemen. I mean, what do you think is going to happen? We’ve got to go back to work and go back to basics. We’ve got to take a look at what we’re doing and make sure the package is what it needs to be and try to figure it out.”
In the aftermath of Temple’s first loss at Buckley since a first-round overtime defeat against Pflugerville in 2007, a disappointed York still savored the competition with Sanford and the talented Knights.
“Iron sharpens iron, and we got better tonight and they got better tonight. It’s always good going against a dynamic duo at running back or any good running back in general, because you’re going to see where you’re at,” York said. “We’ll be playing each other in the Big 12, so that’ll be a fun matchup to watch. You live for games like this and these are the type of games you want to play, so I can’t complain."
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