BELTON — Mental miscues and self-inflicted mistakes have been the annoying pebbles in Belton’s cleats this season, despite the Tigers spending weeks working to free themselves of such nuisances.
Whether it was failing to score the game-winning touchdown from the 1-yard line late in their game at Round Rock last month, allowing 71- and 58-yard runs against Midland Lee that both led to touchdowns in Week 3, or committing a penalty during Killeen’s missed 51-yard field goal attempt — which allowed the Kangaroos to subsequently convert a game-tying 46-yard kick on the ensuing play two weeks ago — the Tigers have been their own worst enemy at decisive junctures.
While Belton hasn’t rid itself entirely of this nagging problem, the Tigers made positive strides last week that aided in a home victory over Copperas Cove that was their second straight District 12-6A win.
And with the cooling weather signaling the midpoint of the season, Belton looks primed to find its midseason form.
“As a coach, you can get caught up in wanting perfection so badly that you miss the improvement,” said Belton coach Brett Sniffin on Wednesday, whose team bounced back from an 0-3 start to the season with the consecutive league wins. “The effort from these kids has been there since after that first game. Now, we’re getting full effort and they’re playing smarter now, too. That’s been huge in our improvement week to week.”
Belton (2-3, 2-0) outgained Copperas Cove 432-289 in a complete performance last Friday that still wasn’t without those aforementioned hiccups. Leading 14-0, the Tigers couldn’t score from the Cove 10, and the Bulldawgs (1-4, 0-2) took over and drove 90 yards in 31 seconds to make it 14-7 at halftime.
“I got a little cute with the play call and that gave the ball back to them when we should have scored,” Sniffin said. “I made a mistake, then we lined up wrong on defense and they ripped off a long run that led to a touchdown. I’ve got to be better there.”
The Tigers responded — something they have done with increased regularity — with a 16-play, 59-yard touchdown drive and a 68-yard scoring pass from senior quarterback Ruben Jimenez to senior receiver Kanyn Utley to start the third quarter and seize control of the contest in the eventual 26-14 win.
The victory paired Belton with Temple and Killeen Shoemaker as the district’s lone 2-0 teams with five 12-6A games left. The Tigers pit their perfect district record against Bryan on Friday, as the Vikings (2-1, 1-1) return home after a 44-7 loss at Wildcat Stadium last week.
Sniffin made it clear that while the objective is to stay unbeaten in district for as long as possible, the result of Friday’s game won’t impact Belton’s approach moving forward.
“It’s 1-0 each week. We can’t look ahead and we can’t look behind,” Sniffin said. “We’re just concerned with Bryan and if we’re 3-0 in district at the end, like we want to be, then that’s good.”
How Bryan stacks up
Bryan is led by sophomore quarterback Malcom Gooden (266 yards passing, 255 yards rushing, five total touchdowns), whose dual-threat ability will be a concern for Belton, according to Sniffin. Junior running back Tason Devault is second on the team in yards rushing with 207 and junior receiver Hunter Vivaldi leads the Vikings in receptions (12) and yards receiving (194).
“We have to stop their option with their quarterback,” Sniffin said. “That’s something you don’t see every day and they run it three or four different ways. We have to take care of that, plain and simple.”
The Vikings are coached by Ross Rogers, who is in his 35th year of coaching and ninth with Bryan. The Vikings had their final two non-district games canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic and Rogers said Tuesday that with such an inexperienced team, those missed snaps proved critical to his team’s development.
“Our team is a young team. Offensively, we’re very young,” said Rogers, whose squad averages 22 points and allows 28 points per game. “A lot of guys who were on the junior varsity last year are brand new to varsity this year, so we needed a lot of snaps and losing those games didn’t do us any favors. It set us back.
“We got beat by a good Temple team and now we have to see how we bounce back from that. This is a big game for us against Belton, coming home and trying to get a win to stay in the playoff hunt.”
Defense continues improvement
Belton allowed a season-low 14 points against Copperas Cove and continued its streak of yielding the same or fewer points than the week before. Senior Charles Williams III and junior Braxton Haynes recorded sacks on the defensive line, while senior lineman Bryan Luna and junior defensive back Trent West recovered fumbles as Belton lowered its season averages for points (27) and yards (308) allowed per game.
Senior linebacker Joe Sniffin had 10 tackles to give him a team-high 34 on the year.
Brett Sniffin said that while the defense as a whole has improved since Week 1, it’s been the secondary that has shown the greatest positive leaps.
“We’ve got some scrappy guys in the secondary that aren’t going to wow you with their looks, but they play hard and have really improved,” Sniffin said. “Guys like West, Aaron Bain, Coleman Naegele and BJ Thompson, they put themselves in the right positions to make plays.
“We talked about wanting to allow half as many points as we did last year and we want to make defense cool here in Belton. We want kids who don’t necessarily want to be a quarterback or running back or receiver, but they want to be on the other side of the ball. They want to be tough and tackle. It’s just a mind shift and the kids are starting to buy into it.”