Stephenville is back among the "elite eight" in its pursuit of a second straight 3A Division I football championship. Standing in the way of a "final four" appearance is a Lubbock Cooper team that has reached the fourth round of the playoffs for the first time in school history.
While the Pirates (11-2) are new to round four - their only other quarterfinal appearance was a round-three game in the 1970 Class A playoffs - the Yellow Jackets (11-1) certainly are not. They have now reached this point 14 times since 1990, and Friday's 7:30 p.m. game at Shotwell Stadium in Abilene will be their fifth quarterfinal in six years under head coach Joe Gillespie.
Lubbock Cooper derailed Burnet 41-34 last week while Stephenville pulled off a late comeback to knock off Big spring 47-36. Jarrett Stidham hit Brock Morrison with a game-winning 21-yard touchdown pass with 4.3 seconds on the clock, and linebacker Kobe Beavers intercepted a lateral and returned it 30 yards for a score on the game's final play.
Stephenville had been dominant to that point of the playoffs, outscoring Brownwood and Springtown by a combined 112-31. The Jackets played without all-state defensive end Jonah Noah and linebacker Wes Lundy against Springtown and Big Spring, but both will return to the lineup against Cooper.
It's a Pirates team that has matched the 1970 team with a school-record 11 wins. They have done it on the back of a multiple offense led by quarterback Stanton Keane and running back Dakota Gruben, and a defense led by end Montana Vega. Keane has passed for 1,610 yards and 13 touchdowns while rushing for 1,272 yards and another 13 scores. Gruben topped 1,000 rushing yards last week and has 1,058 and 11 scores on the ground for the year.
Keane passed for two TDs and rushed for one against Burnet last week, while Gruben rushed for two scores.
"There are a lot of similarities between Lubbock Cooper and Big Spring except Cooper is much more multiple offensively," Gillespie said. "They are very multiple in their formations and their pass game is a bit different. We'll se lots of motion, things of that nature. The quarterback is versatile and can run the ball, and the running back can go. They're a good football team. They call it the great eight for a reason, because everybody let is good."
The same could be said for his Stephenville team, led by Stidham, one of the top recruits among juniors nationwide. He has passed for 389 yards and four touchdowns last week, raising his season totals to 2,298 yards and 29 scores through the air and another 968 and 14, respectively, on the ground.
Standing beside Stidham in the backfield of the Jackets' spread offense is Kaegun Williams, a freshman who has rushed for 664 yards in three playoff games. For the season, Williams topped the century mark in both rushing and receiving yards against Big Spring, and has 1,383 yards and 15 scores on the ground for the year.
The Jacket defense is led by strong safety Tyler Isham after 17 stops last week gave him 88 for the season. UTEP pledge Mookie Carlile is second with 73 stops and also has five interceptions. Linebacker Kobe Beavers has 72 tackles, two defensive touchdowns and a pair of blocked punts.
Besides three turnovers inside Big Spring's seven, the Jackets' biggest problem with the Steers was getting off the field on third down.
"We were fine on first and second down, but obviously we had difficulties on third down," said Gillespie. "Obviously we didn't do what we needed to do to get off the field in several different third-and-long situations, so we learned from that and have made it a point of emphasis this week."
The turnovers slowed the scoring on a day when the Jacket offense amassed 595 yards.
"We needed to have more possessions than we did the first half (it was 16-14 Big Spring at the break) but not getting off the field (defensively) on third down hindered that," Gillespie explained. "I thought we had a good rhythm offensively all afternoon, we just can't turnover the ball three times inside the other team's 10 yard line. If we capitalize on those drives it's clearly a different ball game."
None the less, he was pleased to see his team tested for four complete quarters.
"It had been a long time since we played a full 48 minutes, really since the Amarillo game (on Sept. 28)," he said. "We played the full 48 last week, and we did it at a high pace. Now we just have to execute better in certain areas. But with all that said, hats off to Big Spring and the way they played last week. They had a great game plan, they executed it and definitely proved they deserve to be there."
He says the fifth-ranked Jackets have learned from the scare, just as past Stephenville teams have.
"All the great Stephenville teams get tested at some point in the playoffs, which is what you expect," Gillespie said. "I remember us having to drive down for a field goal to beat Ennis 31-28 in a semifinal game in 1999, and look at the Kilgore game last year and how tough it was to hold them off after getting a good lead. After each of those games we came out and played great the next week, and that's what I expect us to do this week."
Even if winter weather becomes a concern, as meteorologists are forecasting.
"Before playing Springtown, we had not played in any kind of bad weather, but we came out in that game and executed at a high level," he said. "It's certainly not going to be optimal playing conditions, but we have that game to fall back on and that experience to learn from."
There was no word of changing game time or location as of Wednesday afternoon. Any change will be immediately shared online at yourstephenvilletx.com.
The winer of Friday's game faces Kilgore or Tyler Chapel Hill in next week's semifinals.