It’s a game that has been circled on the calendars of area football fans for a long time.
The winner will be in the driver’s seat in the District 8-4A championship race.
And, like last year, it could be a preview of a state quarterfinal matchup.
Stephenville (4-2, 3-0) hosts Everman (5-1, 3-0) tonight in a clash of Class 4A state powers that promises to have an atmosphere equivalent to that of a December playoff game. Kickoff at Tarleton Memorial Stadium is 7:30 p.m.
“There’s only two undefeated teams left in the district. One of them will walk away defeated and the other will walk away still undefeated,” Stephenville head coach Joseph Gillespie said. “Both schools have great football programs. It should be a great game.”
Everman is the only school since 1988 to defeat Stephenville four straight times, having upset the Yellow Jackets in 2006 when the state powers tied Aledo as district tri-champions. The Bulldogs beat Stephenville in overtime for a district title in 2007, and defeated them twice last year - 56-3 in the regular season and 27-24 in a thrilling 4A Division II state quarterfinal.
Both teams enter the contest playing playoff-caliber football.
Since beginning the season 0-2, Stephenville has reeled off four straight wins with an average margin of victory of 31.5 points.
Not to be outdone, Everman has recovered from its season-opening loss to Waxahachie by winning five straight by an average of 35.8 points.
While Stephenville has remained balanced offensively with James Myles handling the bulk of the rushing duties and sophomore quarterback Connor Washington improving each week, Everman has relied almost exclusively on its rushing attack.
The Bulldogs have four ball carriers with at least 30 carries and each averages at least 7.9 yards per run. Cory Franklin leads the way with 760 yards and 13 TDs on 85 trips (8.9 yards per carry). Ruben Fletcher (56-536, 5TDs, 9.6 avg.), James Bailey (33-289, 2TDs, 8.8 avg.) and Shawn Sanders (31-246, 6TDs, 7.9 avg.) have also figured heavily into the Everman offense.
“In all the time I’ve been here (11 years) this is the deepest we’ve ever been in the offensive backfield,” Everman head coach Dale Keeling said. “As much as we run the ball it’s nice not to have to depend on one guy for 30 or 40 carries a night.”
Gillespie says Franklin deserves to be mentioned alongside Denton Guyer’s Jamaine Wilhite and Aledo’s Johnathan Gray as the best backs Stephenville has faced.
“They each have different strengths, but (Franklin) is definitely right up there with those guys,” Gillespie said. “Based on seeing him last year and on film this year, I think he’s the best back we’ve seen at Everman, and there have been some really good ones.”
Gillespie says it’s no secret that stopping the run will be key for the Stephenville defense.
“You have to take away what they do best, and that’s run the football,” Gillespie said.
But the coach warns that just because Everman has attempted only 30 passes all season doesn’t mean the Bulldogs aren’t dangerous through the air.
“I don’t think they throw the ball as well now as they did in week 14 last year, but if you get caught committing everyone to the run they can score with the pass,” said Gillespie.
Everman has scored on four of its 11 pass completions this season.
Both teams have been effective on defense, with each surrendering 40 or more points only once - Stephenville gave up 45 to No. 2 Denton Guyer, Everman allowed Crowley to score 46. For the season, the Jackets are allowing 14.2 points, the Bulldogs are surrendering 20.
With the stats stacking up so well, both coaches agree on the one big key.
“Turnovers are going to be critical,” Keeling said. “We’re focusing hard on winning the turnover battle - taking care of the ball and forcing some turnovers.”
Gillespie says the Jackets have the same mindset.
“Last year we lost the turnover battle both times we played them,” he said. “If we do that again we could be in for a long night. But if we don’t turn the ball over and take advantage when we get opportunities, we’ll have a great chance to beat a very good football team.”
One thing’s for sure, everyone knows what’s at stake.
“The winner of this game pretty much solidifies a playoff spot and is in the driver’s seat to win the district championship,” Gillespie said. “I know our kids are ready to go and hungry for that opportunity.”