For a non-district high school football game in Week 2, it's hard to imagine a greater stage or higher stakes. A capacity crowd filled to overflowing in a fantastic high school facility with a beautiful view. Extra seating brought in for the occasion. A 48-game winning streak on the line that spanned three years and three state championships. A match up between both state champions in the 4A classification from last season. One of the top players in the entire state in 2012.
In the end though, the most unfortunate fact of the night was that Lake Travis may have lost the game before it even began. Lost it when star wide receiver Connor Floyd, a Tulsa commit and the overall MVP at the 7-on-7 state championship back in July, broke his leg in the Week 0 contest against rival Westlake, the last team to leave the field victorious against the Cavaliers. Lost it when Michael Brewer hurt his shoulder in the final moments of the victory against Pflugerville Hendrickson last week and was unable to play.
That's not to make excuses for the 14-10 loss to an excellent team. Lake Travis head coach Hank Carter would surely be the first person to eschew excuses. There were penalties. Dropped passes. Missed opportunities. Chances for growth from a team that has been perfect for so long. Perfect in the win column at least, the only place perfection really matters. The only place it's really attainable.
Junior quarterback Colin Lagasse filled in admirably for the injured Brewer for most of the night, picking up hard yardage on the ground with his combination of strength and short-area burst -- it's an overused term, but the kid is a flat-out football player.
Most of the game was defined by the defenses, however. Never was it more apparent than in the scoreless third quarter. Or the fact that the high-scoring offenses of both teams managed only three touchdowns combined, a far cry from the 18 combined touchdowns witnessed by this author last week at House Park in the game between Austin High and Belton.
Lake Travis struck first, converting a long drive into a field goal early, then adding to the lead with a nine-yard touchdown pass from Lagasse to a leaping Griffin Gilbert in the corner of the end zone.
As it is with the great running backs, though, the fourth quarter was Johnathan Gray time. Aledo capitalized on a roughing the passer penalty and eventually rode the sturdy shoulders of Gray into the end zone. It wasn't easy, either, even for a running back of Gray's pedigree -- Aledo pounded the ball with Gray four times from inside the five yardline to earn the go-ahead score with six minutes in the game.
It was at that point that Lake Travis desperately missed their senior signal caller. Unable to turn to the true backup, senior Garrett Noak, the Cavaliers instead relied on the converted safety/running back Lagasse, who went three and out on the crucial drive.
The Lake Travis defense rose up on the first two downs, as Gray didn't even touch the ball. On the decisive third down, the Cavaliers put substantial pressure on Aledo quarterback Michael Bishop, sending him retreating towards his own end zone. Fortunately for the multitude of Bearcat fans in attendance, Bishop found Gray over the middle and the sensational running back somehow broke several tackles and maintained his balance to launch himself across the first-down marker.
Still, as the home team had their full allotment of timeouts when Aledo began the drive, a stop would have given the Cavaliers some life. It wasn't to be. On the subsequent third down, Gray once again was the savior, finding a seam and bursting through it to send Lake Travis fans towards the exits. A 60-yard run by the Aledo fullback allowed the visitors to line up in the victory formation as the Cavalier defense keyed on Gray and forgot about his much less heralded teammate.
And so the winning streak ended for Lake Travis. In a heartfelt tribute to their team, the remaining fans -- the great majority of them in attendance -- rose to applaud the incredible streak, the memories, the state championships that one loss will never tarnish, never diminish.
First, a few from-the-hip thoughts from PB, who was able to make it out for the first half:
Doyle is an inexplicable take. Had exactly one pancake in the entire half. Whiffed multiple times. Got beat repeatedly by a stubby end who won't play college ball. Blocked with the tenacity of a kid who doesn't love football -- i.e. disposition of Ulatoski, but without the physical skills. Just... wow. I wasn't expecting much, but this was pathetic.
Gray is easy to root for -- I like his style. Handled himself well despite having absolutely nowhere to run. His toughness stands out, not a guy who's going to lose yards very often. Showed good vision and patience, and hit seams hard. The speed is good, but the acceleration is what's special. He's got powerful hips, and plants and goes exceptionally well. He's more sudden than quick, if you know what I mean. Not afraid of contact, and Big Roy got a great video shot of him trucking a safety to finish his best run of the first half.
Overall, a little hard to get a feel for what he can do in the open field, because Aledo was smothered all night. Their offensive system was comically stupid, a terrible spread mish-mash that was pathetically ill-suited to get the most out of Gray. They looked like Texas '09 out there. Gray opened the tailback in the Pistol, then got smothered as Aledo dicked around with two backs splitting the shotgun. It was painful to watch.
Johnathan Gray, 2012 Aledo running back: Even though Lake Travis OL Taylor Doyle was the Longhorn commit in the house, rest assured that OL coach Mac McWhorter and RB coach Major Applewhite weren't in attendance just to see the player who has already pledged to Texas.
No, they were there primarily to make their presence known to perhaps the top player in the state in the 2012 class, the player who will surely be the top target at the running back position.
It would be hard for a player to enter the game with more hype than Gray, who has been a standout for Aledo since his freshman season.
The first thing to note is that Lake Travis keyed on Gray all evening -- head coach Hank Carter is a defensive guy and there's no doubt that he spent most of the week preparing to stop the Aledo star. Combined with the poor field conditions after Hermine drenched Austin only several days ago and it was easy to understand why Gray didn't break any long, spectacular runs.
What he did do was pick up tough yardage. It's not hard to see why the kid had to have shoulder surgery after last season -- he runs hard and is willing to lower his shoulder to punish defenders. He doesn't have Jamaal Charles type of speed -- few do -- but he does have special short-area quickness and burst, with the ability to plant his foot and change direction.
He's also a no-nonsense runner who has a more prototypical build for the position than Malcolm Brown even. His low center of gravity, thick lower body, and ability to run behind his pads are some of his better attributes. Patience and an ability to hit the hole with vision and decisiveness round out the traits expected of the best running backs.
Several plays stand out. On the game-winning drive, Gray looked gassed with his hands on his hips after the first three plunges into the line only feet away from the go-ahead score after having carried the ball multiple times in a row. Instead of caving, Gray only got stronger, ploughing his way into the end zone -- he smelled it and everyone in the stadium knew that there was no way Lake Travis could stop him again. Then, after spending some time down on the turf after his catch and run for the big first down on the final Aledo drive, Gray re-entered the game and then ran three times to pick up the first down. He's a gamer. There isn't much to question about Gray and his toughness clearly falls on the other side of the ledger.
So even though Gray might not have overwhelmed this in attendance, those people exepecting to see a transcendent talent flash, the fact of the matter is that Lake Travis is too good of a team to allow that and Gray earned every single one of his 140 or so yards on the evening. At the least, he's an excellent running back and worthy of being a top target in the 2012 class.
Taylor Doyle, 2011 Lake Travis OL -- While PB's take above was quite scathing, Doyle had a better second half than he did the opening frame. After being beat on the edge in the first half and looking slow and immobile trying to get to the second level, Doyle at least increased his aggressiveness after the intermission. On one play, he pancaked his opponent, then followed up by driving the Aledo defensive end -- admittedly not a college prospect by any stretch -- 15 yards downfield. Soon after, Doyle set the edge for an important Lake Travis first down, pinning his man inside.
There are several considerations here -- the first is that Doyle may not be fully healthy or in top condition after his injury in the state championship game. Both of those factors could have contributed to his poor kick step and inability to change direction in space.
However, the accurate assessment is probably that Doyle was a questionable take at this point -- he doesn't have the feet to play outside in college and the fact that he can't make plays in space doesn't bode well for his ability to pull as a guard, either. Keeping his feet moving and chopping when he latches onto an opponent would help him as well. The bottom line is that Doyle has a long way to go to contribute at Texas.
Matt Bishop, 2012 Aledo QB -- The focus of the offense is clearly Gray and it understandly revolves around the talend back. With that being said, Bishop's running ability complements Gray well. An above average athlete, Bishop has both solid speed and an ability to break down in space and change direction to make defenders miss.
Numerous times on the evening he was able to avoid pressure to make plays, never more apparent or significant than on the third-down conversion to Gray late in the game -- Gray made the defenders miss to pick up the critical first down, but Bishop showed the moxie and awareness under pressure to deliver an accurate pass that gave Gray the chance to make a play.
If there is a concern, it's that Bishop doesn't have many opportunities to show off his skills as a quarterback. Instead, it's mostly about his ability to make the correct read in the option schemes. He has solid arm strength, though on the throw when he showed it off to the greatest extent, it resulted in an interception. Considering the offense at Aledo, Bishop is a kid who will have to impress at camp and combine settings to get any BCS offers.
Griffin Gilbert, 2012 Lake Travis WR/TE -- At this point, Gilbert essentially is who he is. After seeing him in 7-on-7, at a scrimmage, and now in game action, he's a solid player, but doesn't scream "Texas good." What he can do is elevate extremely well and high point the football, as he showed on his leaping touchdown catch in the end zone. At his best when the offense nears the goalline, Lake Travis targeted him probably four or five times on fade routes or jump balls into the end zone.
The same problems remain -- he's kind of a tweener at a time when the Longhorns are moving to a scheme that will probably not take full advantage of a flex tighe end type of player. Gilbert is a deep threat down the field because of his size, but will probably struggle to get separation against defensive backs at the next level and doesn't have the strength at this point to block linebackers or defensive ends. In other words, to maximize his contributions in college, he will have to play in a system tailored to his skills and one that will cover up his weaknesses. Right now, as good as he is, that system doesn't look like it will be Texas.