By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (November 24, 2017) – Stephenville has spent a year preparing for this moment.
The moment its defense would again be asked to slow an opponent with a high-voltage offense in a do-or-die, season-on-the-line scenario.
That’s the scenario faced by every team still playing football in Texas this weekend, including Stephenville (9-2) and Pampa (6-4), who meet in a Region I-4A Division I area playoff Friday at Wichita Falls ISD Memorial Stadium. Opening kickoff is set for 6 p.m.
There have been several progressively more difficult progress checks along the away – a season opener for starters, where you see if what you have taught since last November has made any impact at all. A date with athletic Everman, always a good test for Stephenville teams and a matchup that has proven with rare exception to be an accurate indicator which direction the Yellow Jackets are heading that season.
Decatur was perhaps the first true litmus test of sorts – a high-scoring offense returning largely intact after eliminating Stephenville from the playoffs last fall.
|Per game Averages||Stephenville||
|Sacks by defense||27||14|
|Tackles for loss||69||24|
For primary season box score numbers from both teams, CLICK HERE.
The Yellow Jackets didn’t just pass those tests, they aced them. Even Decatur didn’t reach 20 points until the fourth quarter when the game was well in hand. A road trip to Graham came the next week, but even in suffering their first loss of the season, Jacket defenders further proved their progress in limiting the Steers to three touchdowns offensively. Still undefeated and ranked eighth in the last combined 4A poll this season conducted by the Associated Press, Graham is averaging 52.5 points per game, but the Steers needed a safety, a touchdown on the ensuing safety-kick return, and a Yellow Jacket penalty for a new set of downs near the goal line in the fourth quarter to score 30.
Graham is the only team to reach 30 points against first-year defensive coordinator Cody Moore and his troops, and they have faced a bevy of good offenses. Six Stephenville opponents averaged or continue to average 30 points per game and a seventh averaged 28. Against Stephenville, those opponents have averaged 18 points, with four of them held to below half their season scoring average.
But in none of the previous outings against 30-plus point per game outfits has Stephenville had to face the fact that a loss is the end. Sanger pulled off a nifty little hitch and pitch, or hook and lateral for an 84-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage last week, and put an impressive drive for a second touchdown right behind it. But over the remaining three-and-a-half quarters, the Yellow Jackets dominated the 28-point per game Indians, who averaged 29.5 – you could round that up to 30 – entering the game. Dominated to the level of yielding only 63 yards the remaining three quarters after surrendering 200 in the first. After halftime, the Indians had just 13 yards and one first down, that coming on a Yellow Jacket penalty.
But comparing Sanger to Pampa is not fair to the Harvesters, who will get in a west coast offense, says Stephenville head coach Greg Winder, and throw the ball all over the field.
“They have a couple guys who are good running the ball, but they want to throw it around. That’s really what they are all about is spreading you out and throwing it all over the place,” Winder said Wednesday as his team prepared for Pampa amidst a full week out of school for Thanksgiving.
And why not?
Quarterback Brandon Steward is a 63.2 percent passer for more than 3,300 yards and 30 touchdowns. Leading receiver Darrell Fields has hauled in 77 receptions for 1,070 yards and 10 TDs. Fields, at 6-feet, 4-inches and 215 pounds, is the one guy, Winder says, the Yellow Jacket defense must identify before every snap, and that will require keeping their heads on a swivel.
“He’s very talented, very athletic,” the third-year head Jacket said. “They will move him all over the place, so we have to find where he’s going to be coming from every snap because if you lose track of him he will make a big play.”
The whole essence behind the 4-2-5 is its balance across the field, as Moore, once a defensive lineman at TCU, has said since his promotion from defensive tackles coach to defensive coordinator. Winder hinted that Stephenville would stick with that look and make slight adjustments on the fly depending on where Fields is aligned, but fans heading north for the game should not expect to see any wholesale change to account for the talented wide out.
Photos below by RUSSELL HUFFMAN
Coaches are confident in a secondary that features senior shutdown cornerback Cole Pettit with five interceptions including a pick-six just last week, six total takeaways and 8 pass breakups, and junior corner Cody Storrs, who has picked off four passes, two against Abilene Wylie in the 3-4A Division I district championship game two weeks ago. Storrs has also broken up seven passes, and safeties Gage Graham and Chase Carrillo are versatile talents, Graham also a threat at receiver and in the return game and Carrillo joining Graham near the top of the team’s tackles chart and providing steady success as kicker for the Yellow Jackets.
A strong pass rush could certainly help, and that falls on the likes of Pacen Parker, a junior end responsible for 7 sacks and 5 hurries per stats published by Maxpreps. Linebackers Zane Walker and leading tackler Blu Caylor have combined for nine sacks, and they and others have been known to bring steady pressure from a variety of angles. The Jackets have made 27 sacks this season, probably close to the number of times Steward has been sacked, as his rushing stats show 41 carries for negative 46 yards.
“Their guys at the skill positions have been effective and the quarterback distributes the ball well…We’ve got to cover well in the back and get some pressure on the passer so he doesn’t have all day to throw the ball.”
-Stephenville head coach Greg Winder on Pampa offense
Fields can’t be the only skill position weapon Stephenville focuses on because the Harvesters have four others with more than 30 receptions including 35 by Kaleb Caldwell, who primarily comes out of the backfield. Running Keyshawn Stewart has caught 23 passes on top of rushing for 563 yards.
“Their guys at the skill positions have been effective and the quarterback distributes the ball well and gets everyone involved,” said Winder. “They’re big up front and they get in real big splits and try to get you spread out so they can run the ball, but their main thing is still the passing game. We’ve got to cover well in the back and get some pressure on the passer so he doesn’t have all day to throw the ball.”
In short, Winder is hoping to see balance of pressure and coverage from a balanced defense that has knocked just about all its opponents completely off balance.
WHEN THE JACKETS HAVE THE BALL
It isn’t just Stephenville that has to stop Pampa. That shoe is going on the other foot Friday, too, and the Harvesters must be at their strongest to slow a Jacket offense that appears to still be improving with each passing week.
Easton Jones has completed 60 percent of his passes back for more than 1,800 yards and 21 TDs in nine games, while Krece Nowak has accounted for 1,300 yards on the ground and receptions. The junior running back is coming off a 233-yard performance against, and needs 207 combined yards to reach 2,000 for the season. Blake Aragon has caught 29 passes for more than 550 yards, and Graham has caught 24 passes in seven games of playing offense.
Winder says Pampa is big, but nobody has exactly labeled the Stephenville line this season as small. Center Jacob Poston is flanked by Ty’Von Robinson, Devon Roeming, Lane York and Scott Gill. They have paved the way for 39.4 points per game and more than 4,600 yards of balanced offense – 51.5 percent through the air with 48.5 percent on the ground.
FOR THE WINNER
It will most likely be a date with undefeated Argyle, widely considered a state title contender. The Eagles face Levelland at Clyde Friday beginning at 7 p.m.
Photos below by RUSSELL HUFFMAN