By Rob Ludwig
Special to the Corsicana Daily Sun
It’s hard to judge which is a more powerful incentive for Navarro linebacker D.J. Simon. Is he more motivated for Saturday’s SWJCFC Championship game at NEO by the sheer magnitude of what the game presents or is he hyped because he can exact revenge for last month’s regular season finale loss to the Golden Norsemen?
Regardless of the motivation, Simon says the No. 9-ranked Bulldogs will have the pedal jammed to the floorboard for the 1 p.m. start at an always-packed Robertson Stadium.
“This is a great opportunity for us,” Simon said after Navarro defeated Kilgore 42-14 in one SWJCFC semifinal last weekend. “We came in here and beat the first team that defeated us this season and now we get to go back to NEO where they got us a couple of weeks ago. The fact it’s for the conference championship makes it even better.”
Sounds like a hungry and motivated team that Navarro Coach Brian Mayper will carry to Miami, Okla. this weekend. That’s just what he was hoping to see in the postseason.
“Our kids were really eager to get to the postseason and have a chance to beat the teams that beat us earlier in the season,” the first-year coach said. “I don’t have to make a big speech to them because they are motivated enough. We beat (Kilgore) and now we have a chance to beat (NEO).
“At the same time, they know it’s there opportunity to go win themselves a ring. They know there won’t be a ring if they don’t win it.”
While Navarro was dispatching Kilgore in rout fashion, limiting the Rangers to minus-9 yards rushing, the No. 4-ranked Golden Norse were holding off Tyler, 37-35. NEO jumped to a 34-7 lead at the half but withstood a furious Apache rally in the second half. Tyler scored the final 21 points of the game, including a touchdown pass with 4:19 remaining. Tyler’s two-point conversion pass to tie fell incomplete, preserving the NEO victory.
Don’t expect a lot of changes in strategy offensively for the Bulldogs in this round with the Golden Norse. After churning out more than 265 yards on the ground against a stiff NEO defense, the Bulldogs saw kicker Patrick Sohrt’s 46-yard field goal die as it approached the crossbar in the waning moments of the regular-season finale.
“It’s the same gameplan, we just have to avoid the mistakes,” said Mayper, who watched his team commit three turnovers and 12 penalties against NEO in the first game.
“We’ve got to score when we have the opportunity, which we didn’t do in the first game. You can’t catch NEO with a possible blocked punt in the end zone or a safety that they instead turn into a 40-yard gain on a drive that leads to points. Then later in the first half, we drove the length of the field to the 5 and threw an interception in the end zone. Against a team as good as NEO, you’d better take advantage of your opportunities or you’ll get beat.”
Mayper said Kilgore mirrored many of NEO’s defensive stunts last week, holding Navarro to a season-low 143 yards on the ground. Fortunately, quarterback Stump Godfrey was on fire, completing 18 of 27 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns.
“(NEO) is a well-coached team and their kids always know where they are supposed to line up and then execute,” Mayper said. “They create havoc on your blocking schemes and whenever the ball is thrown, they all attack the football fast.
“We will continue to do what we do best and that is run the ball and hopefully take advantage of field position. NEO is not going to beat itself on defense.”
The Golden Norse also don’t beat themselves on the other side of the ball. Led by solid quarterback Clayton Mitchem, the Golden Norse have committed a conference-low 12 turnovers this season and are plus-11 in turnover-takeaway ratio.
Mitchem was at his best against Tyler last week, passing for 224 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 128 yards and two scores.
Navarro was able to slow Mitchem in their first meeting, limiting him to 150 yards through the air and only 36 yards on 13 carries. But the Bulldogs cannot rest on their laurels, Mayper said.
“(Mitchem) makes their whole team go,” he said. “When they had to go score late in the game against us, he made some great, great throws to get them in position. He’s winner and by far one of the best players in our conference.”
The Bulldogs also held NEO’s potent return game in check in the first contest. Although Tyler held Michael Thompson to four yards on two returns last week, he still owns a pair of 95-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns this season. NEO averages a conference-best 19.1 yards on kick returns and almost 10 yards on each punt return.
Meanwhile, Navarro allowed Kilgore average starting position of its own 41 after three lengthy kickoffs in the second half. The Rangers had four returns of 33 yards or more.
“That just comes down to guys making plays,” Mayper said. “The first time we played Kilgore, they were starting drives at their 21 and 22 after kickoffs. This time it was their 40. I’ll take the 40 every time as long as we get a victory.
“I will especially take it this weekend in the conference championship game as long as we win. We’ve already beaten one team that got us. Not it’s our chance to beat the other one and win a title at the same time.”
Navarro at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M
Saturday, 1 p.m.
At Robertson Stadium, in Miami, Okla.
Radio: KAND 1340 AM
Records: No. 9-ranked Navarro (8-2) vs. No. 4-ranked NEO (9-1)
Recent History: NEO won the regular-season finale between the two teams, 26-24, when K Patrick Sohrt’s 46-yard field try in the waning moments fell short for the Bulldogs.
Key Players: Navarro: QB Stump Godfrey, RB Traylon Shead, WR-KR Tony Drake, TE Gerard Shillow, RB Tyler Middleton, LB D.J. Simon, RB Tim Wright, DE Andre Ross, T Aleon Calhoun, T Zach Fondal, G Mitchell Bell, DT Arnold Blackmon, DE Michael Jolivet, C John Studdard, DT Terrell Brooks. NEO: QB Clayton Mitchem, RB Gerald Howse, WR-KR Michael Thompson, WR Kameron Doolittle, K Kevin King, DE Jaiari Dunaway, S Devron Moore, RB Casey Curtis.
Game Notes: S Moore has continued his hot streak, picking off his conference-leading seventh pass last week against Tyler . . . NEO held a comfortable 34-7 lead at the half against Tyler in one SWJCFC semifinal. But the Apaches stormed back behind TD passes on three straight drives, the last with less than five minutes left. Tyler opted to go for the tie, but its two-point conversion pass was incomplete, giving the Golden Norse a 37-35 win . . . Mitchem has been the class of the league at quarterback this season, completing 62.9 percent of his passes for 18 TDs and only 6 interceptions. Mitchem also has rushed for 565 yards and 10 scores . . . RB Howse (754 yards, 11 TDs) has been NEO’s go-to back most of the season, but Curtis rushed for more than 120 yards vs. Tyler and leads the team with a 5.3 yards-per-rush average . . .This game will feature the two top kickers in the conference. Navarro’s Sohrt came back from his miss in Miami to nail a pair of a FGs vs. Kilgore, including a season-best 48-yarder in the second half. Meanwhile, King hit 3 field goals against Tyler, easily giving him the conference lead with 10 FGs on 12 attempts . . . NEO is second in the NJCAA with 50 sacks this season, led by Jairi Dunaway’s 9.5. Nine players have at least 2 sacks this season . . . Watch for NEO to attempt to disrupt Navarro’s powerful run game with a variety of defensive alignments, shifting from even to odd fronts and bringing linebackers and safeties from different angles to force Navarro blockers out of their area of blocking responsibility. Kilgore mirrored NEO’s efforts two weeks ago and held the Bulldogs to a season-low 143 yards on the ground.