Strong run game. Dominant defense. History made.
HOUSTON — Strong run game. Dominant defense. History made.
Wash, rinse, repeat for the Taylor Mustangs during these playoffs.
The typical ingredients helped Taylor add another chapter to a remarkable storybook season and make the most of its first regional final appearance in the school’s 40-year history.
The Mustangs used 137 yards and a touchdown rushing, and two defensive touchdowns to build a 30-point halftime lead before riding out the rest of their Class 6A-Division II Region III final against Cypress Creek on Saturday, Dec. 7, for a 58-20 rout at NRG Stadium.
The Mustangs (9-5) were, arguably, at their finest in exacting revenge on the Cougars, who beat Taylor in the area playoffs last season, and play Austin Westlake (13-1) in the state semifinals at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, at McLane Stadium in Waco.
Taylor is Katy ISD’s third state semifinalist in football in the last four seasons, joining the 2017 Katy Tigers and 2016 Cinco Ranch Cougars. The Mustangs are striving to be the district’s first state champion in football since the 2015 Tigers.
“It felt great for all of us,” senior running back C.J. Tolbert said. “We were focused and ready to play. We’re playing for each other. This is what we’ve been dreaming of, trying to win a state championship.”
Against a potent passing attack and high-scoring offense, the Mustangs were brilliant defensively, collecting four takeaways, including two interceptions returned for touchdowns and a fumble recovery for a touchdown, and holding Cy-Creek to 267 total yards at 4.5 yards per play.
The Cougars (9-5) entered averaging 38 points per game behind the play of senior quarterback Julian Uwadia, who had completed 60.1 percent of his passes this season for 3,129 yards and 30 touchdowns. Against Taylor, however, Uwadia was flummoxed all game, completing 21 of 41 passes (51.2 percent) for 254 yards and two touchdowns to three interceptions.
Two of those three picks went for touchdowns the other way, courtesy of junior safety Trevor Woods and junior cornerback Cecil Ivy Jr.
But the real heroes of the defense was the line of junior ends Marcus Daniels and Jordan Daniels, and junior tackle VJ Bronson and senior tackle Jahmai Edwards. They combined for 12 total tackles, and two tackles for losses, and never let Uwadia out of their sights, applying constant pressure and disrupting timing time and time again.
Their counterparts on offense were just as dominant. The Mustangs’ offensive line of junior left tackle Hayden Conner, senior left guard Michael Tulenko, junior center Abraham Okezie, junior right guard Bryce Foster and senior right tackle Gunner Elliot was an immovable and aggressive force for Taylor running backs Casey Shorter (118 yards, touchdown) and Tolbert (114 yards, touchdown), and kept junior quarterback J. Jensen III off the ground by not allowing a sack.
“Really, across the board, on both sides of the ball, our offensive line and defensive front dominated the game,” coach Chad Simmons said. “That was the biggest thing. We were really concerned about them throwing the ball, and we got pressure on (Uwadia) and made it to where he didn’t have time to stand back and get comfortable.”
It was a picture-perfect win for Taylor, one players credited to coaches for a stellar game-plan.
For instance, the Mustangs’ secondary was drilled into not falling for double-moves from Cy-Creek receivers. Senior linebacker Martin Nowlin said he knew what he was doing on every formation.
All of that is a testament to film study, something Simmons implores all of his players to do.
“We’re focusing on our gaps,” said Nowlin, who had an outstanding game with five tackles, three tackles for a loss, two sacks and an interception. “We’re getting the exact same looks from the scout team that we get in the games. It makes it easy for us to make plays in the game.”
If his defensive players can recognize the offensive formation quickly prior to the snap, Simmons said, then they can narrow the looming play-call to “2-3 plays.”
“Coaches give us this really detailed scouting report. We know what they’re going to do before they even do it,” Woods said.
Two of the Mustangs’ first three touchdowns in the game came via the defense; Ivey had a fumble recovery in the end zone late in the first quarter and, 46 seconds later, Woods returned his interception 38 yards for a score.
Taylor led 27-7 before the offense scored its second touchdown on a Tanner Isola 35-yard pass from Jensen with 7:52 left in the second quarter.
“That’s big,” Tolbert said. “The defense scoring gives us momentum and gets us going.”
The Mustangs totaled 396 yards and 20 first downs. They rushed for 302 yards, 5.6 yards per carry. They turned the ball over once, late in the second half, and converted four of five red-zone opportunities. Jensen threw two touchdown passes, the aforementioned initial one to Isla and an 18-yard dart to Gavin Belue. Junior kicker Renan Baeta drilled field goals of 48, 42 and 26 yards.
Isola said the offense keyed in on Cy-Creek senior linebacker Josh White and took advantage of strong blocking on the perimeter.
“We were reading the box and kept going to the perimeter,” Isola said. “We took those guys down.”
Taylor has outscored its four playoff opponents 165-89, a point differential of plus-19 per game. The Mustangs are averaging 41.3 points and have collected 11 takeaways in the postseason.
So, off to Waco they go.
“It’s awesome,” Isola said. “We’re the underdogs and we’re doing it. We’re like a bunch of Ozzy Osbournes. We’re on the crazy train, man. Next stop: Baylor. It’s unreal.”