Sunday could very well turn into the ultimate game of keepaway between Tyler and Navarro at Tiger Stadium.
Whichever team can hang on to the ball the longest is likely to also control the scoreboard and take home the Southwest Junior College Football Conference title.
Navarro coach Nick Bobeck watched Tyler do just that last week when it stunned No. 1 Blinn, 37-34 in overtime, as they reached the conference finals for the first time in Coach Danny Palmer’s tenure.
Bobeck is making his fourth trip to the conference’s ultimate game, so he’s keen on what it takes to win the league title. He watched Tyler evolve this season from a primarily passing team to one that pounds defenses with a rugged rushing attack. Video sessions left Bobeck impressed with the Apaches.
“The first time we played (a 34-22 Navarro win), Tyler was throwing the ball all over the place,” he said. “But their offense has changed. They ran the ball 61 times against Blinn last week. They run the heck out of it, keep your offense off the field and then will get out of there with a win. You saw that against Blinn last week, and you saw it the week before against Kilgore, with their postseason chances on the line.”
Tyler averages almost 240 yards on the ground per game and has seven of the league’s top 20 rushers. Ryan Young, who missed several weeks during the middle of the season due to injury, gained 150 yards and scored twice against Blinn, his second game back. Quarterback Randy Price is averaging 6.6 yards per carry and the fivesome of O’Bryan Washington, Ridge Wilson, Chaison White, Brian Eurysthee and Mark Cole all have led the Apaches in rushing in at least one game this year.
Thanks to his adept running, Price has grabbed a more prominent role at quarterback in the latter stages of the season, though he still splits time with strong-armed Tyrik Rollison (1,089 yards, 9 TDs).
Tyler’s improved running game puts a premium on Navarro’s defensive line play. Other than last week’s 243-yard outburst by Trinity Valley, the Bulldogs have been consistent run-stuffers over the last half of the season. Also of importance is the play of linebackers D.J. Simon and Austin Moss, who combined for 25 tackles and three tackles for loss last week.
“Those kids we have up front have the ability to stop the run,” Bobeck said. “The key to this game with Tyler is stopping the run. They’ll run counter sweeps and other mis-direction they have been very effective with in recent weeks. To stop the run against Tyler, we’ve got to be good in the middle and really play well on the edge. If we especially do the latter, we’ve got a chance of slowing them down and getting the ball back.”
Navarro will need to extend its offense beyond its potent passing game that features quarterback Adrian Nelson (3,042 yards, 27 TDs) and receiver Marquez Clark (conference record 75 catches, 1,331 yards). That means the running trio of Demarcus Jackson, Tyler Middleton and Johnny Haynes will have to keep the Bulldogs near their 153.5-yard team rushing average.
“It benefits us to run around 70 plays a game and that’s what Tyler is trying to prevent with their ball-control offense,” Bobeck said. “We’re not a huge uptempo team. Holding onto the ball is of more importance, just like racking up first downs and yards. Tyler is going to try to muddy up the game with weird fronts and trying slow our offense down. We have to maintain our focus, hang on to the ball and drive the ball like we’ve been doing the last several weeks.”
No. 9-ranked Navarro (8-2) is hosting the conference championship game for the third of the last four seasons, though it did it from the third seed this season. Bobeck doesn’t care how his Bulldogs made the final pairing, he’s just tickled it will be in the friendly confines of Tiger Stadium.
“It’s very important to play at home,” Bobeck said. “There’s no organizing buses and meals and taking long rides. You get to play in familiar surroundings, which is important. Playing here so much is great for us and for our fans. Now we have to produce on Sunday.”
Navarro at Tyler
3 p.m., Sunday, Tiger Stadium
Radio: 106.9 FM The Ranch
Records: No. 9 Navarro (8-2) vs. No. 17 Tyler (7-3)
Key Statistic: Tyler quarterbacks are throwing an interception every 14th attempt this season, compared to one in every 42 passes by Navarro QB Adrian Nelson.
Key Players: Tyler: LB Rikko Harris, RB Ryan Young, QB Randy Price, DE Jacoby Alexander, QB Tyrik Rollison, LB Dante Rollins, DE Reggie Taylor. Navarro: QB Adrian Nelson, WR Marquez Clark, WR Eddie Johnson, WR Robert Primes, DL Bubba Vactor, DL Calvin Barnett, S Jeremy McKnight, LB Austin Moss, LB D.J. Simon, DE Tevin Mims, RB Demarcus Jackson, RB Tyler Middleton, RB Johnny Haynes.
Game Keys: WRs Primes and Clark had dropped wide-open passes that would have been TDs in the first Tyler meeting . . . The first game was a come-out party for Navarro’s new fleet of backs. After losing its top four backs for a variety of reasons, Navarro turned to Middleton and Jackson for the majority of its carries. Middleton rambled for 142 yards and a TD on 12 carries. Jackson added a 36-yard TD run. Middleton re-aggravated his separated shoulder last week that cost him two games in October, but he is expected to play vs. the Apaches. Fourth running back Julian Young will return from injury this week but will likely be limited to special teams . . . Tyler rallied to force OT against Blinn last week. They limited the Bucs to a field goal on their first possession and then took advantage of a key third-down Blinn penalty for a first down before RB Chaison White went over from 4 yards for the game-winner . . . Tyler Head Coach Danny Palmer may be the most banged up person on either team right now. The veteran coach was plowed on the sideline in the first half against Kilgore two weeks ago. He stayed on the field but later discovered he suffered a dislocated wrist, two fractured ribs and lots of aches and pains through the rest of his body the next morning . . . The Apaches average 33.5 points per game for the season, but are scoring at a 41.3-point clip in their last three starts . . . Tyler WR Smith has quietly put together a fine season. He has 43 catches, good for third in the conference and 2 TDs. WR Jalen Claiborne is Tyler’s deep threat, averaging 21.5 yards per reception this season second highest in the conference . . . Tyler DE Reggie Taylor leads the conference with 11 tackles for loss. LB Allah Hicks is not far behind with 9 stops behind the line and 3 sacks. LB Dante Rollins has been the Apaches most consistent defender. He has a team-high 65 tackles, 8 tackles for loss and 5 sacks.
— Rob Ludwig