SLOW START, FAST FINISH: Defense, Harrison-Pilot shine as Temple explodes past Ellison for 39-15 win
BLUE WALL: Temple defenders Eric Shorter (13), Jayven Taylor (95) and Marshall Grays (11) combined to tackle Killeen Ellison running back Ezekiel Sheridan as Taurean York (5) and Tommy Torres (right) pursue during the host Wildcats' 39-15 win over the Eagles on Friday night at Wildcat Stadium. After Ellison seized an 8-0 lead less than 2 minutes into the game, Temple's starting defense didn't allow any more points. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
For the second consecutive week, the Temple Wildcats got off to an extremely slow start against a District 12-6A opponent from Killeen ISD.
Last Thursday at Leo Buckley Stadium they fell into a 20-0 hole early in the second quarter at Harker Heights, then scored 31 of the next 34 points and fended off the Knights in the final period to gain a too-close-for-comfort 38-36 win.
Then on Friday night at Wildcat Stadium, Temple fell behind one-win Killeen Ellison 8-0 less than 2 minutes into the game following a costly turnover and didn't take its first lead until almost midway through the second quarter against the feisty Eagles.
Temple sophomore receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot said afterward that it's bothersome the Wildcats haven't yet been able to put together a complete performance for a full game.
“It's always a slow first half, then in the second half we come out and light the scoreboard up,” he said. “We have to find our (best) four quarters. We haven't played our best four quarters.”
Told about Harrison-Pilot's comment, Temple head coach Scott Stewart nodded and issued a direct response: “I'd love to see it.”
The Wildcats' starting defense redeemed itself by not allowing any points after Ellison's early touchdown, and Temple got two touchdowns each from Harrison-Pilot and junior running back Samari Howard as it scored 39 straight points to blast past the Eagles for a 39-15 victory and keep pace with Killeen Shoemaker for first place in 12-6A at 4-0.
“What I love about these kids is the defensive line came off after (Ellison's) eight points and said, 'OK, no more points. No more. That's it,'” said Stewart, whose Wildcats (6-1 overall) carried a slim 10-8 lead into the second half and began to take control when Howard exploded up the middle for a 35-yard touchdown sprint 2½ minutes into the third quarter, followed by Howard's 2-point pass to senior kicker Aaron Wagaman for an 18-8 advantage that opened the proverbial floodgates.
Wildcats senior quarterback Humberto Arizmendi threw an interception and lost a fumble but also passed for 282 yards and threw for three second-half touchdowns: 55 and 8 yards to Harrison-Pilot and a 21-yard connection with Howard for Temple's final score with 5 minutes remaining.
Howard carried 19 times for 124 yards in his sixth consecutive 100-yard rushing game, junior Jalen Robinson scored a 1-yard touchdown on his only carry and the Wildcats offense cranked out 450 total yards after sputtering early.
“They were bringing more (pressure) than we thought they would,” Harrison-Pilot said of Ellison, “so we adjusted to it and we did pretty good in the second half and came out with the win.”
Meanwhile, Temple's stingy defense limited last-place Ellison (1-6, 0-4) to 249 total yards, and that figure included two long gains in the final minutes against backup Wildcat defenders: Contavieon Johnson's 37-yard run and Faleifa Mauga's 45-yard touchdown pass to Zaim Munoz with 2:16 left.
Eagles running back Damashja Harris rushed for 212 yards in Temple's 64-38 win at Ellison last October, and the athletic senior entered Friday's matchup with 683 yards and five touchdowns. But other than running for a 2-point conversion after Ellison's early TD, Harris was rendered ineffective by the Wildcats' quick, physical defense, gaining only 26 yards on nine carries.
Rugged senior Ezekiel Sheridan led the Eagles with 43 yards on 13 carries, and senior quarterback Mauga delivered several punishing runs en route to 35 yards on 10 rushes. But Temple's defense performed well overall, limiting the trio of Harris, Sheridan and Mauga to 104 yards on 32 carries.
“The game plan was, 'Make somebody else beat you,'” Stewart said. “We were going to make somebody else besides No. 3 (Harris) beat us. We executed well. I'm going to do everything I can to keep the same kid from lighting it up.”
Like Harrison-Pilot on the other side of the ball, Wildcats senior defensive tackle Cody Little isn't crazy about the slow starts but he's also experienced enough to take them in stride and help his squad do what it takes to eventually overcome them.
“The first drive, you're adjusting to the speed and seeing what they're doing. After the first drive, everything goes into place,” Little said. “We try to come out fast, but I think one thing we do well a lot of times is we don't freak out or anything. We try to come together as a team and a collective unit. That's the biggest thing.”
UNDER PRESSURE: Temple junior defensive end Tommy Torres (90) harasses Killeen Ellison senior quarterback Faleifa Mauga during the Wildcats' 39-15 win over the Eagles on Friday night at Wildcat Stadium. Mauga threw a touchdown pass less than two minutes into the game, but Ellison didn't score again against Torres and Temple's starting defense. The Eagles recorded only 249 yards total offense compared to the Wildcats' 450. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
As the game progressed, Temple's defensive line of Little, senior nose tackle Jayven Taylor and junior ends Eric Shorter and Tommy Torres became more aggressive and consistently invaded Ellison's backfield to pressure Mauga and take away running lanes.
“I feel really good about our D-line. I think we're all a little bit different, and that's what makes it fun in practice,” Little said. “Jayven and I have a really good relationship, and especially with Tommy and Eric, I think we all do different things and they're able to plug us in different situations.”
Said Stewart about Temple's defensive line play: “They take a lot of pride in it. I'm real proud of that group. Those guys do an unbelievable job. Coach (Robert) Havens and Coach (John) Matthews, those were two big-time hires (during the offseason) and they've done it at a very high level.”
The win moved Temple closer to its eighth straight playoff berth and also was Stewart's 44th victory in five seasons as Temple's head coach, matching the number Mike Spradlin recorded in his five years guiding the Wildcats from 2011-15. Stewart was Spradlin's defensive coordinator from 2014-15, helping Temple compile a 25-4 record, win eight playoff games and reach the Class 5A Division I state championship game in 2014.
After the Wildcats experienced an abysmal start at Harker Heights, their beginning against Ellison wasn't exactly ideal, either. Temple had the game's first possession, and on its second play senior receiver Luke Allen caught Arizmendi's pass for a 12-yard gain but was stripped of the ball by Jaeshawn Johnson, who recovered it at the Wildcats' 31-yard line.
From the 24, Ellison standout senior receiver Trejon Spiller beat respectable coverage in the back-right portion of the end zone to catch Mauga's accurate pass for the touchdown with only 1:53 gone. On the 2-point try, Harris bounced off left tackle and dodged defenders to score, supplying the Eagles with an 8-0 advantage.
Although Temple's resilient defense proceeded to shut out Ellison for the next 44 minutes of clock time, it took a while for the Wildcat offense to get into a groove. Temple went three-and-out on its next series, then Arizmendi's overthrown pass was intercepted by Zyaire King at the Eagle 43 midway through the opening quarter.
“They were a 1-5 football team,” Stewart said of third-year head coach Todd Wright's Ellison squad, “but that's the best 1-5 football team I've ever seen in my life.”
The Wildcats appeared to go three-and-out again on their next possession, with Wagaman in punt formation on fourth-and-3 from Temple's 47. But the senior took the snap and exercised his option to keep the ball, finding open running room on the left side for a 7-yard gain and a first down.
“Everybody on the sideline went nuts. He's a fun kid. It's fun to have kids like that,” Stewart said of Wagaman, Temple's left-footed, fourth-year starting kicker who regularly tells his head coach that he's a real football player, not just a kicker/punter.
MAKING HIS MOVE: Temple senior wide receiver Luke Allen looks to gain yardage as Killeen Ellison defenders Isaiah Hagan (22) and Jaeshawn Johnson (23) pursue him during the Wildcats' 39-15 victory over the Eagles on Friday night at Wildcat Stadium. Allen's five receptions for 74 yards were highlighted by a 41-yard catch from senior quarterback Humberto Arizmendi (282 passing yards, three touchdowns) as Temple improved to 6-1 overall and 4-0 in District 12-6A, tied with Killeen Shoemaker for first place. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Wagaman's timely jaunt sparked the Wildcats, who then got Arizmendi's 41-yard strike to Allen down the left seam to the 5. Ellison's defense stiffened to force fourth-and-goal at the 1, but Robinson took Howard's handoff and crashed into the end zone for the touchdown. The first of Wagaman's four extra points cut Temple's deficit to 8-7 with 2 minutes left in the first quarter.
Early in the second, the Wildcats methodically drove from their 28 to Ellison's 15 before Wagaman kicked a 32-yard field goal 7:34 before halftime to give Temple its first lead at 10-8, an advantage it never relinquished.
Ellison drove to midfield on its next possession, but Wildcats junior linebacker Faylin Lee ripped the ball away from Harris at the end of a 6-yard run to produce Temple's lone takeway.
The Wildcats jogged back to their locker room clinging to the 10-8 halftime lead, and Stewart said that's when his team made the necessary adjustments.
“It took us a little while on offense, but I don't think that's because we were sluggish on offense. Ellison has 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive linemen and we knew going in that we were going to have to stay the course,” Stewart said. “We had some matchup problems in our projection schemes, and (Ellison) switched some stuff up and moved some guys around.
“We went in at halftime, talked about it, made some adjustments and got outside the box a little bit and started giving people some help with some of those monsters they've got up there. We executed well. We had some snafus, but by and large I think we took the adjustments and executed them.”
Temple's defense set the second half's tone by quickly forcing a punt, and the Wildcats moved to the Eagles' 35 before Howard took a shotgun snap and dashed through a huge hole in the middle for a touchdown. Then out of the swinging gate formation, Howard threw to a cutting Wagaman across the middle of the end zone for the 2-point conversion – Wagaman's second 2-point reception this season – and an 18-8 lead 2½ minutes into the third quarter.
YOUNG PLAYMAKER: Sophomore receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot led Temple with six catches for 99 yards and two touchdowns in the Wildcats' 39-15 victory over Killeen Ellison on Friday night at Wildcat Stadium. Harrison-Pilot's 55-yard catch-and-run score from senior Humberto Arizmendi pushed Temple's lead to 25-8 late in the third quarter, then they connected for an 8-yard TD early in the fourth. After starting all 11 games at free safety last year, Harrison-Pilot has 28 receptions for 354 yards and four touchdowns this season. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Perhaps the game's most exciting play came on Temple's next possession. From the Wildcats 45, Harrison-Pilot caught Arizmendi's quick pass on the left side, turned upfield and cut inside and then back outside before blazing past the final defender for an entertaining 55-yard touchdown and a 25-8 lead with 3:14 left in the third.
“That was fun. I never ran so fast in my life. I felt electric right there,” said Harrison-Pilot, a converted free safety and potential future starting quarterback who led Temple with six catches for 99 yards and two touchdowns.
Added Stewart: “I told you that joker can run. When he hit it and missed that first tackle, I was like, 'That (guy) can run.'”
A 19-yard punt return by junior Tr'Darius Taylor gave Temple possession at the Ellison 38 late in the third, and Arizmendi hit senior AJ McDuffy for 18 yards before Harrison-Pilot worked back to the front-right part of the end zone to catch Arizmendi's pass for an 8-yard touchdown, making it 32-8.
After Temple's increasingly tough defense forced another punt, the Wildcats put the exclamation point on their fourth straight victory. Taylor hauled in Arizmendi's deep pass for a 42-yard gain, then the versatile Howard beat his defender to catch Arizmendi's well-thrown pass near the right sideline of the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown and a 39-8 game with 4:52 remaining.
Howard has scored 11 touchdowns in Temple's four district games – eight rushing and three receiving – and 15 TDs overall this season. Arizmendi, a first-year starter, extended his number of touchdown passes to 20, averaging almost three per game.
Mauga's 45-yard touchdown pass to Munoz against the Wildcats' defensive reserves capped the scoring with 2:16 left.
Temple was scheduled to host rival Belton next Friday night at Wildcat Stadium, with the Wildcats shooting for their eighth straight win against the Tigers. However, Belton first-year head coach Brett Sniffin announced in a statement Friday afternoon that his team will be unable to play Temple next Friday because of positive COVID-19 cases within the Tigers' program. Belton already postponed its scheduled Friday home game against Harker Heights.
Temple ISD released a statement later Friday that said, “District 12-6A administrators are in communication about the upcoming Temple-Belton football games and will come to an official decision that will be communicated next week.”
If Temple and Belton cannot play each other next week, the Wildcats' next game would be their first-place showdown with Shoemaker's Grey Wolves (6-0, 4-0) on Thursday, Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. at Buckley in Killeen.
“I was focused on Killeen Ellison. Everybody keeps asking me, 'What's happening next week?' I don't know,” Stewart said. “We've met and talked about some options. We'll meet next week and take a good look at it. I don't know what's going to happen. (But) we're getting ready to play Belton.
"Nothing else has been decided. We're going to show up (Saturday) and work the kids out and watch film, and as coaches we're going to grind on Belton. If someone tells me something different, we'll do something different."
TEMPLE 39, KILLEEN ELLISON 15
Ellison 8 0 0 7 – 15
Temple 7 3 15 14 – 39
Ellison – Trejon Spiller 24 pass from Faleifa Mauga (Damashja Harris run), 10:07.
Temple – Jalen Robinson 1 run (Aaron Wagaman kick), 2:01.
Temple – Wagaman 32 field goal, 7:34.
Temple – Samari Howard 35 run (Wagaman pass from Howard), 9:26.
Temple – Mikal Harrison-Pilot 55 pass from Humberto Arizmendi (Wagaman kick), 3:14.
Temple – Harrison-Pilot 8 pass from Arizmendi (Wagaman kick), 10:25.
Temple – Howard 21 pass from Arizmendi (Wagaman kick), 4:52.
Ellison – Zaim Munoz 45 pass from Mauga (David Avalos kick), 2:16.
First downs: Ellison 14; Temple 20.
Rushes-yards: Ellison 36-147; Temple 32-168.
Passing yards: Ellison 102; Temple 282.
Completions-attempts-interceptions: Ellison 8-19-0; Temple 18-31-1.
Offensive plays-total yards: Ellison 55-249; Temple 63-450.
Punts-average: Ellison 7-28.4; Temple 2-37.5.
Fumbles-lost: Ellison 1-1; Temple 6-2.
Penalties-yards: Ellison 8-56; Temple 10-72.
Rushing – Ellison: Ezekiel Sheridan 13-43, Johnson 3-42, Mauga 10-35, Harris 9-26, Khamari McClain 1-1; Temple: Howard 19-124, Arizmendi 8-38, Wagaman 1-7, Bryce Langrum 2-7, Robinson 1-1, Xander Kelm 1-(-9).
Passing – Ellison: Mauga 8-18-0-102, Amare Johnson 0-1-0-0; Temple: Arizmendi 18-31-1-282.
Receiving – Ellison: Munoz 1-45, Spiller 5-44, Traelen Williams 2-13; Temple: Harrison-Pilot 6-99, Luke Allen 5-74, Tr'Darius Taylor 2-46, AJ McDuffy 4-42, Howard 1-21.