Because Kennedale was just pesky enough to push Stephenville into the fourth quarter, everyone finally got a taste of what the Yellow Jacket offense has become over the course of the season.
Quarterback Tyler Jones passed for eight touchdowns and 486 yards - both school records - without turning the ball over, and added 114 yards on the ground for a total of 600. He engineered an offense that finished with 700 yards and 56 points against a Kennedale defense that had shut out four of its previous five opponents.
The Jackets posted 456 yards of offense in the first half against Burnet the week prior, with Jones passing for four scores and rushing for one. In two playoff games, Stephenville has 1,243 yards and 112 points. Going back to its victories over Venus and Hillsboro to close out the regular season, Stephenville averages 57.8 points over its last four games.
For the season, the Jackets have pushed their averages up to 456 yards and 43.5 points per game, and done it with balance. They average 26.9 pass attempts and 27.2 rush attempts per contest, producing 273.2 yards through the air and 194.2 on the ground.
Jones has been at the center of it all, not only with his impressive 2,930 yards, 34 touchdowns and only four interceptions passing the ball, but also with 687 rushing yards. He broke Kendal Briles’ single-game passing mark of 477 yards and shattered the old mark of five TD passes in a game - done several times - that he had previously tied.
“This kid is on a mission and his mission is to win a state championship; to take this team to the show and win it,” said Gillespie. “If that means eight TD passes, that’s what he’ll do. If it means throwing one that’s what he’ll do. Tyler is the most unselfish player I’ve been around, and that’s a real sign of maturity.
“He’d be the first one to tell you it starts with the offensive line because you have to have time and protection to do anything. Second, he’s surrounded by a great core and a running back who forces defenses to keep linebackers in the box and is also a threat receiving the ball. Then you have our receiving core, and I’ll put them up against anybody. We have five kids who can go and catch the ball at anytime.”
Jones and his primary target were in unison like never before last Friday, as Brice Gunter hauled in 10 passes for 224 yards, third most in school history behind Cody Cardwell in 1998 and Josh Bashaw in 2005. They connected on four first-half scoring plays, including a 95-yard bomb to open up a 14-0 lead late in the first.
For the season, Gunter has 66 receptions for 1,034 yards and 14 scores. He averages six catches for 94 yards per outing and has topped the 1,000-yard mark for the second time.
“Brice is a special player, it doesn’t take much to see that,” said Gillespie. “But it’s kind of the same thing as I said about Tyler. Everyone around him helps him be special because if you’re going to cover Brice a certain way, then okay, we’ll hit Jarrett Stidham or Alex Sanchez or Brock Morrison or even Witt Westbrook out of the backfield. If you pay too much attention to one, we’re going to hit you where you’re light, and when you get out of it, then we hit our big targets again.”
The result is few teams are able to double-team Gunter because the Jackets have three others - Stidham, Sanchez and Westbrook - with at least 30 receptions. Eight different players have caught touchdown passes.
Stidham is a sophomore who has also passed for a touchdown on a trick play against Alvarado that helped secure an outright district championship, the team’s third such title in five years under Gillespie. Sanchez has shown a knack for gaining big chunks on misdirection rushing plays, averaging more than 15 yards per carry.
But the most versatile of the offensive Jackets is Westbrook. He was the team’s leading receiver as a sophomore when he played on the outside. He started last season at linebacker then moved primarily to tailback when standout Aiavion Edwards was injured in the fourth week of the regular season.
This fall, Westbrook has 893 rushing yards and another 297 on the receiving end. He was in on 17 tackles against Kennedale, giving him 61 for the year.
“Witt’s been such a versatile, key part of what we’ve done for a long time now,” said Gillespie. “Offensively, the number of things he can do from running inside, taking an option pitch outside, blocking, receiving; they put teams in a real bind.”
But for all this offensive unit has achieved, both quarterback and head coach still see the unit improving from week-to-week.
“We’ve been executing pretty good all season with the exception of (the season opening loss to Monterrey Prepa Tec, Mex.). We’re going into week 13 and we feel like we’re really gelling at the right time,” Gillespie said. “As a coach, you don’t want to see your team peak too early. You don’t want to be at your maximum in week five. Something we’ve done a good job of is maintaining a steady heartbeat and getting a little better each week. This late in the season, that formula stays the same.”
Jones led the Jackets to the quarterfinals in 4A Division II last year, and knows the work goes on.
“I think we’re peaking at the right time, but we’re not satisfied or complacent,” he said moments after his record-setting performance last week. “There’s still work to be done.”
That begins with Friday’s quarterfinal against No. 2 Abilene Wylie, the only 3A Division I team ranked ahead of Stephenville in the Associated Press poll. Undefeated Wylie (12-0) has surrendered just 84 passing yards and 13.4 points per game.
“I anticipate they will give us a lot of different looks to try and keep us guessing as opposed to just loading up on (Gunter) and trying to take him out of the game, just because we can hurt you in so many ways,” Gillespie said. “If that’s what they do, let’s hope it’s a case of ‘a jack of many trades, master of none.’
“We need to continue to do what we’ve been doing,” he added. “We need a good week of preparation, then we need to go out on Friday and be the ones to impose our style of play and our tempo.”