By ROB LUDWIG / Special To The Corsicana Daily Sun
BRENHAM — It’s not the rivalry that drew all the attention a few years ago, but when the Navarro Bulldogs travel to Brenham on Saturday to face Blinn, there will be plenty on the line, just like the old days.
Back when Navarro handed eventual Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton his only collegiate loss, the Bulldog-Buccaneer rivalry was among the best in junior college football. The games were hard-hitting shootouts with ample drama and several future NFL players donning blue and red during the late aughts.
The old coaches have moved on with national championships under their belts and the current coaches are attempting to secure a playoff berth with two games remaining in the conference season.
Navarro had risen to No. 1 in the NJCAA but has since fallen to No. 14 after back-to-back losses to SWJCFC frontrunners Tyler and Trinity Valley. The 5-2 Bulldogs will face off with a Blinn team that is 3-4 overall and finds itself even with Navarro in the standings at 2-2.
The winner has a good opportunity to forge a playoff berth. The loser might be looking at a quick end to their season.
“The conference is pretty even this year,” said Navarro coach Brian Mayper. “Anybody seems to be able to beat anybody this year. There haven’t been any real blowouts. I know we lost (35-7) big to Trinity Valley, but the game was a lot closer than the score indicated. Things just snowballed on us.
“Blinn has been one of those teams that has played a lot of close ones this year. Anything can happen across this conference this year.”
Indeed, the Bucs had a narrow miss against undefeated Tyler three weeks ago, losing to the Apaches 31-28 on the road. They rebounded to defeat Kilgore and then lost to Trinity Valley 34-18 at home last week.
Blinn runs an option-heavy offense under the direction of sophomore Garry Kimble and freshman Logan Vinklarek, who has received more playing time in recent weeks.
Kimble threw the ball much more as a freshman, but with the big yardage totals often came turnovers. Blinn has sliced their turnovers significantly this season, currently ranked third behind Navarro and Tyler at plus-three in turnover/takeaway ratio. Blinn has also forced a league-high 20 turnovers this season.
Kimble has completed 52 percent of his passes this year for 756 yards, but he has been picked off five times to only three touchdowns. He is a proven option runner, averaging almost four yards per carry this season.
Sophomore Klartel Claridy is the heart of Blinn’s offensive attack. Currently third in the conference in rushing yards, Claridy averages more than six yards per touch and has nine touchdowns this season, tied for second the league.
“They’ve done a really good job in their option game this season,” Mayper said. “They are the only real option team we have in the conference and they have done well this season in creating opportunities.”
With a struggling NEO team at home to end the regular season, Navarro must look at the game at Blinn as its opportunity to vault itself back into the playoff picture.
The Bulldogs looked good against a subpar team last week, ripping Southeast Prep, 80-0. But hidden in that win was the growing confidence of quarterback Carson Earn, who completed 11 of 13 passes, including three for touchdowns. Two of those scoring strikes went ot Markel Steward-Gillespie, who has progressed rapidly in recent weeks after a slow start to the 2013 season.
With Earp gaining much-needed playing time and the running game continuing to blister opponents with the likes of Tim Wright and Cameron Washington, Navarro’s offense appears to readjusting after losing starting quarterback Josh Greer three weeks ago.
The defense has continued to be impressive this season under first-year defensive coordinator Scott Joseph. The 3-4 defense has become the best in the league, allowing opponents 244.3 yards per outing, which is 68 yards fewer than any other team in the conference. Navarro’s pass defense is also allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 43.8 percent of their attempts, the only team in the league that is holding opponents to less than 50 percent.
Whether the Blinn-Navarro rivalry will bloom again, both teams will have the postseason on their minds on Saturday in Brenham.
“It will be a huge game for both of us,” Mayper said.
No. 14 Navarro at Blinn
Saturday, 3 p.m. Cub Stadium
No. 14 Navarro (5-2 overall, 2-2 in SWJCFC) and Blinn (3-4, 2-2).
RECENT HISTORY: Navarro cruised to a 35-21 at Tiger Stadium last season in a game that was not as close as the score indicates.
KEY PLAYERS: Navarro: OL Carter Wall, RB Tim Wright, RB Cameron Washington, LB Dominique Kelly, WR Markel Steward-Gillespie, OL Tim Hines, DE Desmond Owino, DL Kerry Holiday, DL John Williams, CB Sherman Gilbert, S Aaron Shaw, S Alex Miller, CB KeUntis Thompson, LB Chrishard Buhl, WR Devin Lauderdale, WR Austin Collins, QB Alex Allen. Blinn: QB Garry Kimble, RB Klartel Claridy, RB Spencer Cowley, QB Logan Vinklarek, WR Darrion Landry, WR Josh Robertson, KR Reggie Anderson, KB Ryan Flannigan, DB. J.J. Massey, DB Myles Curl, LB Ken Butler, LB Keil Heidman.
GAME NOTES: Blinn gave Tyler its biggest scare of the season three weeks ago, falling 31-28 on the road to the Apaches, who have since surged into the top 5 of the NJCAA rankings . . . QBs Kimble and Vinklarek will split time running the Bucs’ option-oriented offense that compiled more than 465 yards against Trinity Valley in last week’s loss to the Cardinals. . . . Blinn features three defensive players with SEC offers, topped by Flannigan (Kentucky) . . . former Navarro assistant and Cisco and Ranger head coach Kurt Nichols is the offensive line coach for Blinn . . . Navarro continues to dominate the turnover-takeaway stats in the SWJCFC … the Bulldogs have given the ball away only eight times this season while forcing 19 turnovers for a plus-11 … no other team is within seven of that mark … Navarro quarterbacks have also been picked off just once in 187 attempts in 2013, by far the best percentage of any team in the nation that has attempted 175 passes or more.
— Rob Ludwig