GUNTER — The Tigers will have to change gears in a hurry when they take on the New Diana Eagles at 7:30 p.m. Friday in a Class 3A Division II state quarterfinal at Royse City.
The Eagles (10-3) sport a pass-oriented offense that averages 499.7 yards and 46.3 points per game. Quarterback Jackson Sampson, who has completed 280-of-428 passes for 4,657 yards with 61 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, leads a unit that puts the ball in the air more than 57 percent of the time and has gained nearly 72 percent of its yardage by passing.
“It’s certainly different than this past week, getting ready for Holliday,” Gunter head coach Jake Fieszel said. “That was a Wing-T based team, a team we knew we were going to have to gear up and stop the run.
“Looking at New Diana, they run the spread offense and they have an excellent quarterback and some excellent receivers. They do a great job of making plays in the passing game, and they’re also effective in the running game, too.”
New Diana has six receivers with more than 20 catches (ground-oriented Gunter has one) with T.J. Rogers (95-1,623, 22 TDs) and Cody Payton (54-1,458, 21 TDs) leading the way. When the Eagles run, the trio of Marquice Wilkerson (64-439, 3 TDs), Aron Jahr (41-428, 5 TDs) and Zane Freeman (79-415, 4 TDs) have been productive.
“It’s definitely a big change going from a primarily run team to a primarily pass team,” Gunter linebacker Kennon Magers said. “Our coaches this weekend came up with a good plan and installed it this week. We just have to know what they’re doing and recognize their schemes as the game goes on.”
It’s not like the Tigers, who enter with a 29-game winning streak, haven’t handled challenges before. Gunter’s success has been built on a defense that has allowed just 129.8 total yards (78.5 passing, 51.2 passing) and 5.1 points per game. Linebackers Zach Lowe (107 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 3 sacks) and Peyton Lowe (78 total tackles, 17 TFL) and defensive end Colton Schmitz (77 total tackles, 17 TFL, 6 sacks) lead the team in tackles.
Magers, who has 63 total tackles with seven tackles for loss and six pass breakups, said one key for the Tigers (13-0) is keeping track of Sampson and Rogers.
“We have to keep (Sampson) in the pocket and lock down their receivers as best as we can,” Magers said.
Center-defensive tackle Adrian Martinez said the Tigers must control the line on both sides of the ball.
“We just have to play fast, physical and mean, control the D-line and put pressure on the quarterback,” said Martinez, who has 56 total tackles with eight tackles for loss and three sacks. “On the O-line when we have the ball, we have to play fast and clamp up.”
Another way for Gunter to combat the Eagles is with its offense, which has gained 4,192 of its 4,994 total yards on the ground and put 638 points on the board. Fieszel would like to employ a ball-control approach and keep the Eagle offense on the sidelines, but that’s easier said than done.
“That’s something where it has to work out that way,” Fieszel said. “We’re just going to go and try to play our game. Certainly, if we can limit their possessions, that would be great for us. We going to try to play to our standard and, hopefully, that’s good enough to get a win.”
The Tigers have made use of multiple players on offense with Dylan Jantz (73-1,026, 21 TDs rushing) and Braiden Clopton (58-762, 13 TDs rushing; 23-562, 10 TDs receiving) providing big-play potential. The Lowe brothers (Zach, 66-500, 5 TDs rushing; Peyton, 41-420, 12 TDs rushing) give Gunter power-running options, while quarterbacks Daylan Bower (77-699, 12 TDs rushing; 21-33-1 350 yards, 5 TDs passing) and Ethan Everson (46-369, 4 TDs rushing; 24-40-1 452 yards, 8 TDs passing) offer a pair of dual threats.
“Obviously, the more people that can help the team win, the better for everybody,” Fieszel said. “We’re just fortunate and blessed to have a bunch of guys that can contribute and a bunch of of guys that can really run the ball at a high level.
“When you can keep your guys fresh and spread the ball around, that’s certainly a big help. Sometimes, their carries are determined by the structure of (an opponent’s) defense or something that we just like play-wise that week. If we can spread the ball around, get everybody touches, keep people fresh running the football, that’s definitely a positive for us.”
And with so many players pulling double duty, Fieszel said, the offensive rotation helps keep players fresh for defense, as well.
“Those guys are going to play defense because they’re great defensive players,” Fieszel said. “Obviously, keeping them fresh and rotating the ball around on offense, that helps their defensive and special-teams game.
“We’ve been there before where we had one guy we felt like we had to get the ball to, and that guy rushed for 2,000 yards in a season. We’re just really fortunate this year to have a bunch of guys that can carry the load. That’s one of the reasons we’re in the position we’re in right now.”
Gunter and New Diana have two common opponents in Leonard and Daingerfield. Gunter defeated Leonard, 70-0, for the District 6-3A Division II title, while New Diana edged Daingerfield. 24-21. for the District 7-3A Division II crown. In the area round of the playoffs, Gunter eliminated Daingerfield, 38-3, while New Diana ousted Leonard, 36-8.
“There’s a lot you can take away,” Fieszel said of the previous games. “We have both of those videos and there’s certainly a lot of things you can’t get off there, especially personnel-wise. You can kind of see their speed versus Daingerfield or versus Leonard, the physicality of line play and things like that. There’s a lot you can gauge from that.
“The structure and things like that, Leonard doesn’t run our defense or offense, so some of that won’t be the same. But definitely personnel matchups, you can get quite a bit of that.”