BURLESON — Last year, Burleson and Joshua combined for four wins all season. Through four weeks this year, the Elks and Owls have already combined for seven wins. And the two rivals meet Friday with first place on the line early in District 9-5A play.
Joshua (3-1, 1-0) is off to its best start since 1996, when the Owls last made the playoffs, while Burleson (4-0, 1-0) is off to its best start since 2009. Both teams are coming off wins last week to open league action on the right foot. Burleson smashed Granbury, 42-6, while Joshua held on for a 21-18 win over Arlington Seguin.
Joshua Coach Mike Burt said the difference between this season compared to recent years is apparent.
“It’s night and day. It’s gone from doom and gloom to hope and, well, hope,” Burt said. “The biggest thing I’ve noticed out of our kids is their focus and their consistency in effort during practice. Their preparation has been exemplary. Of course, winning cures a lot of ills. I’ve been saying that since I walked in this place. But you only get to celebrate a win for 24 hours then you have to move on. You can’t wallow in excitement and happiness. There’s the next game. Every week you have an exceptional challenge before you that you have to go meet. And this is one of those exceptional challenges.”
Burt said this week’s challenge against an undefeated Elks team is easily the biggest test for the upstart Owls.
“Bottom line is they’re a pretty dadgum salty team,” Burt said. “They get after you on defense. Offensively they present a lot of different dimensions you have to defend. And their special teams are exceptionally sound. It’s going to be quite the challenge.”
Burleson Coach Gary McElroy said the most notable thing from Joshua is the Owls’ confidence level and improved defensive play.
“You can tell that they’re playing motivated,” McElroy said. “They’re playing hard. They have some guys that fly around on defense and make plays. They’re playing with confidence, that’s obvious. The difference in their record from now and what it has been in the past is they’re creating some turnovers, scoring some defensive touchdownss and things of that nature. They’re really playing with confidence.”
For the Elks, McElroy said he’s most pleased with his team’s poise and focus.
“I like that our guys have remained extremely focused,” McElroy said. “They’ve shown great maturity in the crosshairs of adversity, whether it be losing [starting quarterback Hayden Whitten] for a while or any type of adversity they’re seeing on the field. They’re fighting through it all. I’m really pleased with the way our football team is approaching practice and games on a day-to-day basis.”
Joshua has already matched their 2012 win total of three games. That was also the last time the Owls won a district game, when they beat a winless Burleson team. In order for the Owls to knock off the Elks and start 2-0 in league play, Burt said there’s a lot that has to be done.
“I think it starts with our defense,” Burt said. “Our defense has a propensity to bend but not break or give up the big play and we need that this week. We have to keep everything in front of us. They’re going to get their explosive plays. That’s what they are, that’s their DNA. But we’ve got to minimize their explosive plays. We’ve got to do a good job of trying to create turnovers. That’s No. 1.
“No. 2, offensively we can’t be three-and-out. We’ve got to win the game with field position because that’s worked to our advantage so far. We’ve got to get to where we can execute balanced. We’re so hot and cold with our passing game. We’ve got to take advantage of what they give us. With our run game, we’ve got to win at the point of attack. And on special teams, we’ve got to be very smart in what we’re doing and be very sound in what we’re doing. Whatever you do, don’t kick it to [Jaylen Johnson].”
While the Owls will strive for balance on offense, the Elks have already found that balance even with backup quarterback Jacob Amador at the helm. Burleson has 677 pass yards and 740 rush yards through four games.
“I think balance favors us,” McElroy said. “I think being balanced — being able to run and throw effectively — and being level headed enough to take what the defense is giving us is key. I feel like we have the ability to distribute the ball if a defense is really trying to take something away from us. They can’t double cover everybody. If they do, somebody else has to step up and we just keep going. We know based off the last few weeks that we’ll keep seeing something differently to try to take away some things. So we’ll have to be ready for it and adjust.”
For Burt, success has always started and ended with defense. And while the Owls have been solid defensively — allowing just 17 points per game — they’ll face their biggest challenge against playmakers such as Johnson, Amador, Caleb Lewis and Aden Anderson.
“Here’s the thing, if you let [Johnson and Lewis] get going, they can hurt you pretty bad,” Burt said. “They do a good job with Caleb feeding him the rock out of the backfield. And what’s scary about Johnson is the fact that he’s all over the darn place. You can’t kick it to him. And he’s deadly in space. That makes you lose sleep at night.
“What I’m impressed about [Amador] is that he’s a pretty smooth operator. He functions very well in that offense. The fact they have two quality quarterbacks is a bonus for them. I think he’s very poised. He doesn’t panic. He dishes it out to the good guys. I think he’s a pretty smooth operator who doesn’t get rattled.”
For McElroy’s Elks on defense, the Burleson coach pointed out recognition as their key in stopping Joshua’s offense.
“They’re very multiple offensively,” McElroy said. “The past couple years they were primarily under center, were ground and pound, and found ways to manufacture first downs and grind the clock. Now they’re multi-faceted offensively. A lot of it’s going to be recognition for our guys — understanding what they want to do out of certain formations and certain sets, make sure we’re reading our keys and being solid with the plan and playing fast like we have been.”
Last week, the Elks faced a confident and undefeated Granbury team before blasting the Pirates. McElroy said it’s a familiar situation this week, facing a team with a growing confidence.
“We just have to stay level headed and play our game,” McElroy said. “Two weeks in a row we’re kind of in the same situation. We played a very confident Granbury team who was 3-0 a week ago. And they’re not bad at all but I think our kids rose up and made them kind of try to play up to our level. We ended up coming out on top on that one. I think it will be the same this week where our guys just have to approach this game like any other. It’s a district game; they’re all must-win games. And it’s business as usual — just go and play hard, play fast and take care of business.”
Kickoff between the Elks and Owls is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday from Burleson ISD Stadium.
article written by Cleburne Times Review