Committing six turnovers was the biggest culprit in Temple’s season-opening 35-29 loss at Round Rock Cedar Ridge, where the Wildcats nearly came all the way back from a 28-9 deficit.
Ball security was a vital component in Temple’s seven-game winning streak that followed, as the Wildcats’ big-play offense had only four turnovers combined in September and October.
However, the turnover bug resurfaced in last Friday’s District 12-6A showdown at Hewitt Midway, and it bit Temple in a big way at a bad time. The Wildcats turned the ball over six times — three interceptions, three fumbles — in a frustrating 52-28 defeat that prolonged the Panthers’ dominance of the teams’ recent series and pulled Midway into a tie with Temple for first place at 6-1.
“You cannot do that against good football teams,” said Wildcats coach Scott Stewart, whose squad’s turnovers were converted into 35 Midway points. “Everybody wants it to be death and damnation, but we’ve just got to take better care of the ball. It was eerily similar to Cedar Ridge. On the sideline it felt like deja vu.”
Playoff-bound Temple (7-2) shoots to respond in its regular-season finale against Copperas Cove (3-6, 2-5) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium. A Wildcats win clinches at least a share of Temple’s first district championship since 2015.
It wasn’t that Temple couldn’t afford to turn the ball over at all against defending district champion Midway (6-3), which threw two interceptions of its own. The most damaging thing about the Wildcats’ giveaways was how, where and when they occurred and what they led to.
Temple’s first turnover was an interception thrown by sophomore Samari Howard, who shifted from running back for a brief stint at quarterback halfway through the first quarter. On the next play, Midway took advantage of a coverage bust for a 50-yard touchdown pass and a 10-0 lead.
The most crucial turnover happened late in the first. The Wildcats authoritatively drove from their 10-yard line to Midway’s 5 for a first-and-goal opportunity, but senior running back Anthony Jackson fumbled while trying to switch the ball to his outside arm. Safety Ben Smedshammer scooped it up and sprinted 89 yards for a momentum-changing defensive touchdown.
Instead of Temple potentially making it 10-7, Midway extended its lead to 17-0. It was the classic 14-point swing, and the Wildcats never fully recovered from that nightmarish sequence.
“We turn the ball over and they score and it’s 10-0, then we drive down in chunks and fumble on the 7. That’s a 14-point swing, and that completely defined the rest of the game. It’s a different game,” said Stewart, who compared it to Temple’s fourth-and-goal stop against Killeen Shoemaker that sparked the host Wildcats’ 38-28 comeback victory Sept. 20. “We’re four steps from getting within three points. It was literally a 14-point swing in one play.”
Down 17-0 with three quarters left, Temple still wasn’t out of the game. Midway marched to Temple’s 12 before freshman middle linebacker Taurean York intercepted Jared Moore’s pass at the 5. But as York returned the ball he absorbed a blindside tackle and fumbled, and the Panthers recovered at the Wildcats 21. Given new life, Moore dashed 18 yards for a touchdown and a commanding 24-0 lead.
“They’re the best team we’ve played this year,” Stewart said of Midway. “They had the turnover bug (in a 17-14 home loss) against Harker Heights, and we had it against them. The parity in this district is not going to allow you to make that many mistakes and get away with it.”
Temple senior tight end Tyson Magana suffered a broken ankle while being tackled on his 29-yard first-quarter reception. After missing 1½ games with a left knee injury, Wildcats senior quarterback Vance Willis started against Midway and rushed for two 14-yard touchdowns but also threw two interceptions, lost a fumble and was limited to 121 yards on 6-of-17 passing.
Jackson ran for 140 yards with two TDs and Howard rushed for 107 yards. Willis, Jackson and Howard have a combined 2,422 yards and 34 touchdowns on 315 carries this season.
Stewart said “we’re going have to take more shots” regarding passing to senior wide receiver Quentin Johnston, the 6-foot-4 Texas commitment who has seven touchdowns this season and 23 in his career but none in Temple’s last three games.
Week 11 scenario much different this year
Entering the 2018 regular season’s final week, 12-6A’s postseason scenarios were so convoluted that it seemed more advantageous for Temple to lose at Copperas Cove than to win.
The Bulldawgs needed a Week 11 win to get into the Class 6A Division II playoffs, which would push Midway into the Division I bracket and give Temple 12-6A’s top D-II seed and a bi-district home game instead of a first-round road test at undefeated Longview, the eventual state champion.
Temple led Cove 12-0 at halftime and 18-7 in the third quarter, but with key injuries mounting, Stewart decided to pull his starters and use reserves. The Bulldawgs then outscored the Wildcats 15-0 in the fourth to win 22-18 and seize a playoff berth in coach Jack Alvarez’s first season.
That night Stewart described the unusual predicament as “one of the hardest weeks of my professional career.” Temple got a home playoff game against 3-7 Mesquite Horn, but its season ended in disappointing fashion when the Jaguars invaded Wildcat Stadium and compiled 613 yards in their 45-38 upset win.
Although Temple was widely criticized first for the perception that it tried to avoid juggernaut Longview and then because it lost a first-round home game, Stewart has maintained that he did what was best for his team and wouldn’t have handled that situation differently.
This season, the Wildcats’ fourth-year head coach has steered clear of any discussion about standings, scenarios and seedings. Even with Temple having an opportunity to at least tie Midway for the 12-6A championship, Stewart’s sole focus is on the Wildcats finally putting together a complete performance.
“That’s exactly what our object is, to get our stinger back and stop worrying about other stuff,” he said. “I want this team to put its best 48 minutes on the field before this team is dissolved. I don’t know how much time that is. Minimum it’s two weeks; maximum it’s seven weeks.”
Temple has an outside shot to win the 12-6A crown outright and host a bi-district game, but it must beat Cove and Midway must lose Friday’s finale at Belton (3-6, 3-4), whose Tigers need to win and have Shoemaker beat Harker Heights to grab a Division I berth.
If Temple and Midway both win or both lose, the Panthers will host a first-round game as 12-6A’s top D-II seed based on their head-to-head tiebreaker over the Wildcats, and Temple will embrace the challenge of playing at perennial power Longview (9-0), winner of 25 straight games.
“We’re prepared for whatever happens. We’re going to play whoever we deserve to play,” Stewart said. “Probably should’ve followed that mantra last year, but I usually don’t make the same mistake twice.”
After winning 21-16 at Heights, Copperas Cove pushed third-place Shoemaker into overtime last week but then couldn’t score, and the visiting Grey Wolves produced a touchdown to prevail 34-28.
Temple’s defense is preparing to contain the Bulldawgs’ Wing-T-based rushing attack. Senior Micah Cox leads 12-6A rushers with 1,506 yards and has 19 rushing touchdowns, and senior Elijah Delacruz has 667 yards rushing with seven TDs. With sophomore Shane Richey the primary quarterback, Cove has passed for a district-low 769 yards.
“Every option or Slot-T or Wing-T guy I’ve ever heard says, ‘You better get us before the frost is on the pumpkin,’ because it takes a while,” Stewart said. “It’s hard to get ready for that stuff in three days. We take designated time in the spring to look at that stuff, just so it’s not brand-new this week. Every week (Cove) gets better at it and the scores reflect that.”