WILLIS — The new Willis Wildkats didn’t secure a victory in their home opener Friday night.
There were a lot of positives though, especially off a two-win season, with their new head coach Michael Wall now calling the shots.
The Willis Wildkats held a second half lead but fell to rival Huntsville 34-24 in non-district play Friday night at Berton A. Yates Stadium.
“Our guys came out and played very hard,” Wall said afterwards. “We have a lot of learning to do. We play a faster paced offense and we’re going to ask more out of these guys. They’re going to play more plays. We have some guys who play two ways.”
The Wildkats (0-1) were ahead 24-20 to start the fourth quarter before a pair of rushing touchdowns by the Hornets early helped them pull away and hang on.
Huntsville senior Jaeryne Green had three touchdowns to lead Huntsville, two of which came in the fourth quarter.
“Towards the end there, we just have to stay in it and stayed motivated,” Wall said. “We got stopped a couple times offensively and kind of got our dauber down a little bit.”
Willis had 289 yards of total offense and the defense held steady until late with three takeaways on the game. Huntsville totaled 433 yards of total offense.
The Wildkats led 15-14 at halftime but fell behind at the 9:35 mark of the third quarter when Green scored his first rushing touchdown from seven yards out (two-point conversion failed).
Senior DaMon Williams took an electric run to the house as Willis regained the lead by a point at 21-20 sixteen seconds later. Williams came clear across the center of the field before finding a lane down the right sideline all the way to purple paydirt.
“We spend a lot of time on our special teams,” Wall said. “We did a lot of great things all three phases.”
Sophomore kicker Colton Batten then gave Willis a 24-20 lead on a field goal midway through the third quarter.
Huntsville, however, scored on a five-yard run by Green with 7:03 left in the fourth quarter to take the lead again. He then added his third rushing score with 4:13 left to play from 48 yards out to make it 34-24. Green finished the night with 174 yards on 23 carries.
Willis showed its new offensive prowess on its first possession of the night.
After a three-and-out by the Hornets, Willis went five plays capped by senior quarterback Jermichael Dickerson connecting with senior teammate Tre’Vion Jones for a 37-yard touchdown. Charles Kibble bulldozed in the two-point conversion to make it 8-0.
Huntsville responded on the ensuing drive. Quarterback Matthew Southern capped an eight-play, 70-yard drive with a one-yard punch in. He finished with 191 yards passing and 23 on the ground.
The Hornets forced a punt on the following Willis drive before taking the lead. Tyrique Carter caught a touchdown pass by Southern in the corner of the end zone for a 14-8 lead at the 3:14 mark of the first quarter. He had six receptions for 86 yards on the night.
After Willis missed two long field goal attempts on previous drives, it found the scoreboard with huge play at the 3:18 mark of the second quarter. Dickerson hooked up with freshman Jadarius Brown who maneuvered his way down the right sideline and into the south end zone. The extra point by Christian Pavon gave Willis a 15-14 lead at halftime.
Wall knew Brown could run the particular route called effectively, but it was his athletic ability that made the play.
“It was a better play by him,” Wall said. “It wasn’t scheme. It was him out-jumping a guy and getting the ball and making a big-time play. He came through for us.”
The Wildkats held Huntsville off the scoreboard the whole second quarter, including the last drive of the frame before time expired.
Willis had some big plays on defense in the first half as senior Mitchell Granger had an interception. In the second half for Willis, Braeun Raglin and Rashaad Wynne each had fumble recoveries. Willis now celebrates turnovers on the sideline by stashing the ball in a metal trash can and capping it shut with the lid.
“Coach (Tim) Knicky and those guys on defense really get them going there,” Wall said. “I was pumped about the turnovers, I love turnovers — they are game changers. Whenever we pop the quarterback and the ball came out, I was probably excited as I was all night. That gives us a chance, that’s for sure.”
For the night, Dickerson struggled rushing the ball at times which resulted in minus-seven yards. But he threw for 215 including two touchdowns and an interception.
“I thought he was making great decisions early on,” Wall said. “I think our protection struggled a little bit as it came down to the wire a little bit and had to run for his life a couple times. But he made some good decisions most of the night. He’s a fearless competitor and he’s always going give that.”
Willis took a big blow early when senior offensive lineman and SMU verbal commit King McGowen exited with a foot injury.
“That was obviously tough in our captain and leader going down,” Wall said. “These guys have to understand that’s football. Things happen sometimes and the next guy has to step up and do his job.”
Huntsville has now won three straight over the Wildkats and four out of the last five meetings.
Willis travels to Lake Creek at 7 p.m. Thursday.