JUSTIN — A handmade sign flapping in the cool, gentle breeze at Northwest ISD stadium said it all: “Even the Score.”
Josh Emmons and the Stephenville defense shut down the vaunted Wichita Falls Rider rushing attack and Brad Mills ran for 204 yards and a pair of touchdowns to lead Stephenville to a 31-6 victory against a Rider team that previously held a three-game playoff win streak against the Yellow Jackets.
The win gives Stephenville, 9-3, its first Class 4A Division II area championship since 1999, and the Jackets' first area title of any kind since 2005 when they went the Division I route. Rider's run of five consecutive area-round wins was snapped as the District 5-4A champion Raiders finish the year 8-4.
“This is huge for our kids and huge for our program because it's Rider and it's for an area championship,” said first-year Stephenville head coach Joseph Gillespie, who was an assistant on the Yellow Jacket staff for each of the season-ending losses to Rider. “None of our kids have ever experienced this before. Our seniors were freshmen when the 2005 team went past the second round. They may have gone and seen it, but they've never experienced it as players. It was one of our goals from the beginning of the season and we've worked very hard for it. Our kids, our staff and everyone associated with our football program is starting to see the fruits of their labor. It's an exciting time.”
The Jackets advance to face run-happy El Paso Parkland in the Region I semifinals at 1 p.m. Saturday at famous Ratliff Stadium in Odessa. Parkland, the No. 2 DII seed from District 2-4A, won its area title in a 49-41 win against San Angelo Lake View.
Stephenville took control from the start against Rider, scoring on its first two possessions and four of five in the first half. The Raiders, who rushed for only 71 yards on 27 trips, had no answer.
“I think everyone got to see what we've been anticipating and expecting,” explained Gillespie. “When we finally get everything together — we're healthy and focused, we have a great game-plan, we make good adjustments during the game and our kids execute to the fullest extent — we're a very good football team. We saw flashes of that tonight.”
Rider drove into Stephenville territory five times but scored only once when Eric Ward capped a 10-play, 74-yard drive with a one-yard keeper in the second. The extra point failed and Stephenville's lead was 14-6 with 5:39 to play in the opening half.
The Jackets wrestled away any momentum that may have shifted in Rider's direction when Mills rumbled to pay dirt from five yards out to make it 21-6. The Stephenville defense then forced a quick three-and-out, and the Jackets had just enough time for German Chavarria to drill a 19-yard field goal on the half's final play to open up a commanding three-score lead.
Any hopes Rider had of getting back into the game came crashing down when Emmons sacked Raider quarterback Reid Barnette on fourth down after Rider had driven to the Stephenville 18 on the opening possession of the second half.
“We had a great game plan,” said Emmons, who registered five tackles for loss, including two sacks, and also forced a fumble. “Instead of shooting the gaps like I usually do, the coaches had me reading and reacting more this week, and it put me in a good position to make some plays.”
A down-field holding penalty negated a 70-yard scoring run by Mills on the next play, and the teams traded punts. When the Jackets got the ball back, five straight runs by Mills and senior quarterback Brad Picha were followed by a Picha-to-Josh Graves scoring strike of 11 yards, giving the game its final tally with 1:25 left in the third.
Rider's fourth quarter efforts were ruined by four consecutive turnovers, two on interceptions by Reilly Avalos and two on lost fumbles, one of which was caused by Emmons and recovered by sophomore linebacker Dominick Jokel.
Stephenville's early offensive success came mostly on the back of Mills and the effective run blocking of the senior-laden offensive line. Mills blew threw a big hole and ran away for a 74-yard score on the third play from scrimmage, and after Rider picked up one first down and punted, Picha ended a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive with a one-yard sneak for a 14-0 lead.
“Our offensive and defensive lines were excellent last night and we knew they had to be for us to have a chance to win,” said Gillespie. “(Mills) did a great job, and not to take anything away from him, but our guys on the offensive line made some holes anyone could run through.”
The Jackets racked up 96 rushing yards on the opening two drives, and also established a vertical passing attack when Picha found Daniel Noland for 33 yards to the Raider one to setup the second score.
Picha, who was sacked just once early on, was efficient through the air, completing 14 of 24 attempts for 198 yards and a touchdown. His only turnover came on a deep ball with the game already in hand. He hit five different receivers, including receptions-leader Josh Graves with five for 54 yards and a score, and yardage-leader Noland, who had three grabs for 67 yards. Dakota Mathis made three catches, Mills had two and Malone had one while also starting on defense and special teams.
With 233 yards on the ground and 198 through the air, Stephenville tallied 431 yards of total offense, and did so without a single fumble. Mills, who has carried the ball 54 times in the two playoff wins, has not fumbled since the Jackets lost to Everman on Oct. 17.
Rider, which has been without Michigan-bound quarterback Shavodrick Beaver for much of the season, was led by reserve signal caller Reid Barnette, a wide receiver by trade. Barnette was 19-27 passing for 219 yards, but had two passes picked off. He found six receivers, led by Ward with six catches for 69 yards.
Stephenville and Rider are now an even 3-3 in six match-ups since 2004. All of Rider's wins were in the playoffs, coming in the bi-district round in 2004 and the area round in both 2006 and '07. Prior to Friday's win, both Stephenville victories came in the 2006 and '07 regular seasons.
“Ever since we were playing football on the playground at Gilbert Intermediate School, we dreamed of doing this,” said Emmons, a senior. “To come up short against the same team a couple of years in a row was really frustrating. We just kept doing all the little things right and kept believing we would get back here and beat them and we did.
“The ride is just starting,” he continued. “We're going to continue to work hard and improve. We're just now getting on a roll, and we want to keep on rolling for a while.”