The first half of the season went pretty well for the Denison Yellow Jackets, winning all but one of their games before the bye hit the midway point of their schedule.
They opened with three close victories, lost in a down-to-the-wire shootout and then rebounded to win the district opener before getting a two-week break.
“It’s a bye week. It’s not an off week,” senior linebacker Mateo Reyes said. “We’re still working and preparing to be the best that we can be.”
How much success occurs over the final five games, however, is what will determine how the year will be judged. The first step towards a second straight playoff appearance went very well and now Denison (4-1, 1-0) travels to Wichita Falls Rider (3-3, 2-0) in District 5-5A action at Memorial Stadium on Friday night.
“Outside of one game, I thought we’ve played very good and the one we lost we had opportunities,” Denison head coach Chad Rogers said. “We’ve got to keep doing what we do, play with confidence.”
It is a key contest as the winner will gain the upper hand in the race for the top seed in the Division II playoff bracket — and keep pace for the district title — while the loser gets thrown into what looks like will be a crowded race just to earn a postseason berth.
“We spent the whole bye week on Rider and getting better ourselves,” Rogers said.
Denison was able to enter the bye off some good feelings. The Jackets beat Wichita Falls, 55-21, behind Austin Emery’s performance — the senior quarterback had 136 yards on six carries and was 8-of-8 passing for 150 yards and three touchdowns — while Bubba Roberts ran for two scores and had one of the TD catches.
“Keep practicing the way we’ve been practicing,” senior center Osvaldo Delarosa said. “Our mentality — each team we play each week is the hardest team we’ll face.”
The offense had put up 57 points to close out non-district play and the hope is that the bye doesn’t stunt that momentum.
“It’s gonna happen regardless,” Rogers said. “Do you want it an the end? Do you want it at the beginning? It all depends on how your kids adjust. We’ve added some things offensively, which is what we’ve done in the past.”
Rider has been up-and-down to get to its .500 record but the Raiders come into the match-up with back-to-back wins.
Rider hung on for a 24-21 victory against Sherman and then beat cross-town rival Wichita Falls, 48-6, last week.
Against Wichita Falls, Jorge Vargas was 14-of-16 passing for 242 yards and three touchdowns and added a touchdown run. Brandon Bolton had 17 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown and Danari Curry returned a fumble 53 yards for a score as the Raiders built a 34-0 lead in the third quarter.
Against Sherman, the Raiders scored the go-ahead TD with 37 seconds left and then hung on as Sherman drove and had a throw to the end zone to win it. The Bearcats finished with four turnovers and Rider scored three of its four touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Rider has found a lot of success through the air and Vargas is leading that charge. He has completed 89-of-146 passes for 1,418 yards and 13 touchdowns with just a single interception.
Bolton leads the team with 112 carries for 569 yards and eight touchdowns and Samuel Manuel is next with 138 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries. Vargas is third with 30 carries for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
Jake Edgemon is the leading receiver at 31 catches for 565 yards and six touchdowns while Tre’Shawn Humphrey has 14 catches for 221 yards and three TDs.
An area to watch will be how the Denison defensive line, which has been very disruptive, deals with the Rider offensive line. The Raiders have three first-team all-district players from last season — Jonathan Ewing at center, Andrew Fry at guard and Caleb Hughes at tackle while Peyton Ernest was second-team all-district at guard.
Defensively, opponents have averaged 6.2 yards per carry against Rider (1,217 yards on 195 carries) and scored 17 times on the ground to go with 760 yards and seven touchdowns with four interceptions passing.
The Raiders have forced 10 turnovers on the season and seven of them have come in the last two games.
“They’re athletic on offense,” Rogers said. “They’ve played really good defense the last couple weeks.”