Perhaps it was a sign of experience gained, perhaps it was just momentum carrying over. Or perhaps it was the 'Rose Bowl' drill coaches installed in practice last week. Or a combination of all three.
Whatever carried Stephenville to such a strong start to the second half in its 46-32 Lone Star Classic victory against Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Dillard Saturday, head coach Joe Gillespie liked what he saw. He hopes to see more of it when the Jackets entertain Waco La Vega in their fifth annual Heart of Gold Game Friday at Tarleton Memorial Stadium.
"The start of the second half just killed us in our first two games," Gillespie said. "We got into a slugfest with Monterrey Tec (Mex.) because of it, and obviously we were out of the game at Aledo because of it."
But on Saturday, the start of the second half - with some help from an equally strong middle part of the second quarter - was the difference in Stephenville winning a game, not losing one.
"I was so proud of the way we came out of the locker room at halftime," Gillespie said. "Ahead, behind, whatever; if you win the opening two series of the second half, offensively and defensively, you've got a chance."
Dillard led 26-8 after returning a fumble 95 yards for a score early in the second, and Stephenville seemed lifeless. The Jackets had just squandered a 15-yard gain and first down on a fake punt before the fumble, which came on third-and-goal at the Dillard two.
But Stephenville scored on a 1-yard run by Kaegun Williams, re-gained possession on a Tyler Isham interception and found the end zone again when Jarrett Stidham passed 17 yards to Grayson Sweet for a TD that cut the deficit to 26-21 with still more than four minutes to go in the first half.
"Right then, I thought we were going to get a stop and take the lead before we ever went into the locker room," Gillespie said.
The defense provided the stop, as Dillard lost two yards on its next possession. But the offense faltered with an incomplete pass on fourth down, and the five-point hole stood at the half.
"It's all we talked about at halftime, how the game would be determined by how we came out to start the second half," Gillespie said. "And we couldn't have started any better."
Malik Taylor got it started with a 45-yard kickoff return to the 50, and three plays later Williams, a freshman who rushed for 109 yards, turned a simple dump off to the right flat into a 38-yard touchdown to put the Jackets ahead to stay.
This time, Dillard gained one yard on three downs before punting again, and the Jacket offense overcame a sack on their first snap to score in nine plays, capping the drive with a 3-yard run by Stidham for a 36-26 lead less than halfway through the third.
"We went into the break down a score, and halfway through the third we're up two scores," Gillespie pointed out. "It just flattens a team when you do that to them. Obviously what we did to Dillard wasn't near the extreme of what Aledo did to us at the start of the second half, but we knew how that felt, so right then we were confident we were going to win the football game."
Strong starts to the second half were a staple of Stephenville's run to the 3A Division I championship last season. The Jackets scored on their opening possession of the second half to take a 42-21 lead in the title game, two weeks after sprinting out of the locker room and dominating the second half 35-6 to bury Abilene Wylie in a quarterfinal contest. Stephenville dominated the start of the second half against Aledo and Amarillo in other wins last year.
"It's a new group, a new team. This group has had to go through some things and find their identity," Gillespie said. "I hope a big part of how we're identified moving forward is as a strong second half team.
"If that's the case, if in several weeks we're looking around talking about how strong we are in the second half, we'll look back to these first few games and we'll know why," Gillespie said. "We'll know that these early tests of our character have paid off and made us a better football team."
-Grayson Sweet suffered a broken wrist Saturday and is out 4-6 weeks, Gillespie said. Sweet was seeing his first action after breaking a bone in his other hand over the summer. He was on the field for just three plays, including a 17-yard touchdown catch. He jumped for a two-point conversion pass, breaking his fall with the wrist when he came down in the back of the end zone.
-Heart of Gold T-shirts can be purchased for $12 at Barefoot Athletics on Washington Street across from the Tarleton State University administration building. The beneficiary this year is Boyd Mabry, son of Stephenville assistant coach Garrett Mabry.
-Friday will mark Stephenville's last home game until Oct. 18, when Alvarado visits for homecoming. The Jackets play Amarillo in Snyder next week, are idle on Oct. 4 and start 7-3A play at Glen Rose on Oct. 11.