By GREG WILLE
Telegram Sports Correspondent
Although the five interceptions thrown by senior first-year starting quarterback Vance Willis certainly contributed to Temple’s season-opening 35-29 loss at Round Rock Cedar Ridge last Friday, Wildcats coach Scott Stewart emphasized that those giveaways didn’t tell the whole tale — not even close.
Temple’s inexperienced defense allowed a screen pass to develop into a 71-yard touchdown early in the first quarter, let a receiver get open deep for a 43-yard TD pass late in the third and permitted runs of 52, 26 and 24 yards. Those five plays accounted for 216 of the Raiders’ 380 yards total offense.
Special teams hurt the Wildcats, too. After Willis scored on a go-ahead 15-yard run for Temple’s first touchdown this season, Deuce Vaughn shredded through the kickoff coverage unit for a 97-yard TD to put Cedar Ridge ahead to stay. And errant snaps hindered the Wildcats’ kicking game.
The thing that actually bothered Stewart the most about Temple’s first season-opening loss since 2011 was the lack of maximum effort by his defense in general and some seniors in particular during the first half as the Raiders seized a commanding 28-9 lead.
“The unfortunate part is some of those guys have a (grade level of) 12 next to their name,” said Stewart, who commended the Wildcats’ second-half defensive improvement that limited Cedar Ridge to seven points and helped Temple charge back to have a shot to win in the final minutes. “Heck, the only thing I’ve ever asked anybody to bring to the table is attitude and effort. If they can’t bring that, there’s not a whole lot of use for them. There’s been a little movement on the depth chart.”
Temple’s home opener is at 7:30 p.m. Friday against Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon of Monterrey, Mexico. The Wildcats and Tigres will play under Wildcat Stadium’s new lights.
Last week, Stewart made the rare decision to start two freshmen on defense, and he gave solid marks to free safety Mikal Harrison-Pilot and linebacker Taurean York for how they handled their debuts against Cedar Ridge, a perennial Class 6A playoff program.
“Sometimes that moment is too big (for young players). The moment wasn’t too big for Mikal and Taurean,” Stewart said. “Their assignment grades were probably 50 to 60 percent, which is what you expect for 14-year-olds playing their first varsity game. What we consider there is misfits, too slow on the reaction with their eyes, not reacting off their keys fast enough. I was really proud that both guys scored in the high 80s to low 90s on effort — just playing the game hard.”
Willis threw four first-half interceptions, but only one led to Cedar Ridge points. Stewart said on the first interception a defender appeared to have jumped offside and Willis thought he had a free play to attempt a deep pass, but no penalty was called and the interception stood.
A long Willis pass to the end zone was picked off as first-half time expired, which was no more damaging than if it had fallen incomplete. Willis’ ill-advised crossing pass was intercepted midway through the third, but the Raiders punted shortly thereafter.
Willis ended up 8-of-18 for 123 yards, highlighted by his 53-yard touchdown strike to Texas-committed senior receiver Quentin Johnston to begin the fourth, and rushed for 64 yards and a TD on 16 carries. Stewart said that although Willis must make better decisions with the ball, his first-game struggles were understandable.
“It was Vance’s first varsity game playing quarterback at the 6A level against a good team,” Stewart said, comparing Willis’ debut to that of then-senior QB T.J. Rumfield in 2017, when Rumfield threw three interceptions but responded with two second-half TD passes in Temple’s season-opening 38-31 win over rival Belton. “That kid’s his own worst critic. He knows he didn’t play a great first half.
“It was bad decisions and misreads and I think relying too much on Quentin as a bailout. Quentin’s going to get extra (defensive) attention for the rest of his life. So now it’s going to be paramount that we take what the defense gives us. It’s not all on Vance. The key is going to be how much of a step forward he can take. That’s going to tell what 2019 looks like for Vance Willis.”
Status of injured star RB Jackson undecided entering home opener
A lingering right hamstring injury prevented Temple star senior running back Anthony Jackson from playing the season opener, and Stewart said Jackson must show “he can practice at full speed” during the Wildcats’ fast-paced, 50-minute midday workout today to be cleared for Friday’s home opener.
Temple’s top priority is ensuring that the speedy Jackson, a three-year varsity standout who scored 15 touchdowns in 2018, is fully recovered. The Wildcats begin their eight-game District 12-6A schedule next Friday in Killeen against Harker Heights.
Sophomore Samari Howard rushed 25 times for 254 yards and a touchdown in his stellar debut at Cedar Ridge and rugged junior Ky’Juan Pugh added 31 yards, so Temple might opt to give Jackson another week to get closer to full health.
“We don’t want Ant to push the gas too hard,” Stewart said, adding that three senior Wildcats suffered ankle injuries against Cedar Ridge: tight end/deep snapper Tyson Magana, left tackle Dayton Lewis and linebacker Quincy Marshall.
Wildcats expecting test from UANL during Tigres’ annual Texas swing
Temple controlled Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon a year ago, sprinting to a 27-0 first-quarter lead at Wildcat Stadium and stretching it before the Tigres scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns for a 43-14 result.
However, that Wildcats defense had 10 senior starters, including four large, aggressive linemen. With Temple breaking in a smaller line this season, a UANL squad coming off last Friday’s 33-21 loss at San Antonio Cornerstone Christian likely won’t be as overmatched in the rematch.
“Temple was an awesome team, the best we played last year,” said coach Juan Carlos Garcia, whose Tigres opened last season with games at Copperas Cove, Temple, Port Lavaca Calhoun and College Station and went on to win Mexico’s high school national championship. “They were Division I-caliber players — fast, strong, physical. Some of them are gone this year, but don’t get me wrong. They have a great coach and I know this Friday will be a tough challenge, too.”
Stewart expects UANL to show some schemes and alignments the Wildcats don’t usually see from Texas opponents. Whereas the Tigres used four quarterbacks against Temple last year, Rodolfo Aguilar is now the main QB. Garcia said UANL’s best players are running back Saul Diaz, offensive lineman Azael Granados, linebacker Delfino Palomo and defensive lineman Alberto Romero.
“Where we matched up well last year was we were 6-foot-1, 275 pounds across the defensive line. Now we’re 5-10, 205,” Stewart said with a laugh. “Holy cow, these (UANL) guys are big. They look a lot different than a year ago. They’re taking a lot of pride in their program.”
After facing Temple, the Tigres play at Calhoun next Friday and at College Station on Sept. 20.