Kelly Wray/For The Duncan Banner
The Duncan Banner
Empire coach Tony Roberts could get use to this. He hopes his Bulldogs already have.
On Friday, for the fifth time this season, Empire tasted victory after cooking a familiar recipe that features a large portion of salty defense and sprinkles of sweet runs by sophomore Dillon Twigg.
This time, it was Healdton that Empire excused from the table, 28-7, for a homecoming victory.
A chilly crowd at Ric Johnson Memorial Field saw Empire start fast, make a crucial goal-line stand to end the first half, and dominate the second half defensively. It was a blend that lifted Empire to a 5-1 overall start for the first time in at least nine years.
In addition, Empire is 3-0 in District A-4 and needs only a victory over winless Wilson on Friday to set up pivotal matchups with league powerhouses Ringling and Velma-Alma. Those district beasts make subsequent stops in Empire in Weeks 8 and 9, respectively.
Healdton dominated the time of possession Friday, but it couldn't catch Twigg or puncture Empire's red zone defense in the final three periods. Healdton took 57 offensive snaps to Empire's 32 and gained eight more first downs than did EHS.
But Healdton couldn't escape Empire's speed. When Healdton did piece together a drive, Empire refused to give up its goal line. The contest swung on Healdton's final drive of the first half. With Empire clinging to a 15-7 lead, Healdton marched to the EHS 1-yard line and had two downs to score.
But on third down, Empire strong safety Tanner Shorter stepped in the hole and stopped Dylan Pickelsimer for no gain. Healdton quarterback Jaun Lara then hurried his offense to the line, took the snap on a quick count, and tried to plunge into the end zone. He was turned away, and Empire drained the clock to intermission.
"That might have been the difference in the game," Roberts said. "If they score, it's going to be 15-14 or 15-15, and they get the ball to start the second half."
Healdton didn't advance any farther than the Empire 31 for the rest of the game.
Empire started fast. After Empire's first drive stalled, punter Freddie Larsen pinned Healdton on its own 3-yard line. Healdton lost two yards on first down and then snapped the ball over Lara, standing in shotgun formation, and out of the end zone for a safety.
Twigg took a reverse on the ensuing kickoff and raced to the Healdton 7. Two plays later, he took a sweep right 9 yards for the game's first touchdown, and Empire held an early 8-0 lead.
That Twigg touchdown touched off a scoring flurry. It appeared Empire might have a chance to create some distance when EHS stopped Healdton on its next series. But Twigg fumbled the punt at the Empire 9, and Healdton was in business.
Four plays later, on fourth down, Lara snuck in from the 1 and Justin Scott tacked on the extra-point to cut Empire's lead to 8-7. Empire needed just three plays to answer, with Aaron Key racing 58 yards to the end zone on the first play of the second quarter. That gave Empire its 15-7 halftime lead.
And the Empire defense went to work in the second half. "The defense played lights out in the second half," Roberts said. "We knew they were going to run the ball because of their size, and we knew if we could stop the run, we'd be in good shape. We knew we had to come out and play good defense in the second half."
Twigg all but put the game away on Empire's second play of the third quarter. He took a handoff and raced free down the left boundary for 30 yards, then he spun away from one tackler and raced back toward the center of the field. There, he broke another tackle, raced all the way to the other side of the field, avoided several more would-be tacklers and finished his jaunt into the end zone.
"Was that a great run or what?" Roberts said.
Empire fullback Stephen Price capped the scoring with a one-yard plunge in the fourth quarter.
Caleb Webb intercepted two passes to lead an opportunistic Empire defense. Evan Whitt also had an interception and Trey Skiles had a fumble recovery.