Photo: Joseph Nguyen/Texas HS Football

KELLER, Texas — How do you stop one of the state’s best dual-threat quarterbacks and his red-hot receiving counterpart without your most imposing defensive weapon? Sprinkle pressure, add dashes of sack mastery and blanket coverage, and mix with hints of long-range magic.

Associated Press No. 18 Keller Fossil Ridge beat Haltom 38-14 Thursday night at Keller ISD Stadium, handing the Buffalos their first district loss of the season behind an Atlas-like defense that stopped the sky from falling during Michael Black’s second-quarter barrage.

“I’ve never been 7-0 in this program. It’s a blessing,” senior quarterback Cobe Craft, who finished 9-for-17 with 171 yards and two touchdowns, said about winning the first seven games of the season. “It starts with the O-line — all five of them watching my back all day. It’s got a deeper meaning to us and our family camaraderie. I’ve never been in a program like this.”

A pair of 20-yard-plus touchdown strikes to Stefan Cobbs, Jr. may have given the impression of an offensive spectacle, but the defense was the main storyline. The Panthers recorded six sacks courtesy of a career night from Alex Alvarado and forced three interceptions via Cole Crawford and Tim Benson takeaways.

FILLING IN THE GAPS

Jacob Fernandez and the Keller Fossil Ridge defense sack Haltom quarterback Michael Black in the fourth quarter — the sixth time in in the game (Joseph Nguyen/Texas HS Football)

Keller Fossil Ridge also held quarterback Michael Black and running backs Quentin Tshilombo and Jahari Williams to 42 yards rushing and 192 total yards in four quarters. Perhaps more importantly, it produced arguably its most complete win of the season without its sack leader.

“This game was big for us. As of last week, we lost one of our key players to a season-ending ACL-MCL tear,” Alvarado said about the loss of Arnold Saidov.

Saidov, a 6-foot-3 and 230-pound defensive end, had notched 13 sacks in six games and handed opposing quarterbacks more than 90 yards lost. In his place stepped Alvarado and Rafael Hernandez, who had three and two sacks, respectively. The sixth came from Jacob Fernandez, during a third-quarter blitz.

“It’s sad and we did this for him. We didn’t let it affect us emotionally before the game because we knew we have a path to go on,” Alvarado continued, pausing momentarily to collect his thoughts. “When you do it for someone you love, though, your game always steps up.”

FIRST HALF FLASHES

Michael Black (12) runs a quarterback sweep at Keller ISD Stadium in Keller, Texas. (Joseph Nguyen/Texas HS Football)

Despite allowing 113 rushing yards — including 32 and two scores to Panther running back Colione Evans — in the first half and turning the ball over on the first play of the game after Imiee Cooksey’s fumble on the 43-yard line, Haltom went blow-for-blow with their state-ranked, district counterparts. For almost three quarters, the Buffalos threatened to knock Keller Fossil Ridge from its top-20 pedestal.

That included Decorian Mitchell’s diving interception of a sure Craft touchdown on the Panthers’ second offensive series.

“First of all, that’s a great team right there. I’ve got to tip my hat to Coach Baccarini and Fossil Ridge, they’re better than us right now. I’m not going to sugar coat that or anything,” Haltom Head Coach Jason Tucker said. “I thought we fought with them well, but we knew we’d need the ball to bounce our way a couple of times. That’s probably the best defensive line we’ve seen all year and they gave our O-line fits.”

As Black (11-25, 150 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT) weaved in and out of surefire sack situations and found Cooksey (7 rec, 106 yards, 2 TD) for scores that gave Haltom a momentary lead, Tshilombo ground out tough yards that threatened to eat clock.

And though he was sacked a half dozen times, there were almost a dozen lost-yardage situations his mobility helped him escape.

“Mike did a great job of making things happen in scramble situations,” Tucker said. “He threw the ball on the run and got the ball to Imiee first half to get us back on track. He held his composure and was a great leader for us, too. We’re going to go back and look at our film against an undefeated team we were with all the way up until the half. We’re going to try and fix some of the things that broke down in the second half so we can be on par with a team like Fossil Ridge if we meet one like that in the playoffs.”

Tshilombo finished with nine rushes for 32 yards — 29 came in the first half.

HARNESSING THE ‘KILLER INSTINCT’

Stefan Cobbs, Jr. dives towards the pylon for his second touchdown of the evening (Joseph Nguyen/Texas HS Football)

Ahead by a mere three points courtesy of an Eduardo Mercado 43-yard field goal, the possible loss of Craft after injuring his left shoulder while scrambling for a first down with 37 seconds left in half seemed to rouse Keller Fossil Ridge from its offensive slumber.

His self-described “stinger” seemed to only stoke the Panthers’ fire, as Craft fueled Keller Fossil Ridge to 21 second-half points. He threw for 98 yards and two touchdowns in the third quarter — not including a 49-yard dart into the waiting hands of Cobbs, Jr. that was wiped away by a 15-yard penalty.

“We talked about all the distractions and came out hard with a killer instinct mindset and did what we did. When we do what we do, we get results like we did [in the second half],” Craft said about his team’s approach to the final two quarters.

By the time Craft found Cobb, Jr. streaking toward the end zone for his second score of the game — one of the 35-yard variety — with 9:25 left in the fourth quarter, the Panthers had already accumulated a double-digit lead and created the cushion for their running game to take center stage.

Evans rushed 14 times for 91 of his 122 yards in the second half. He finished with 22 total carries. Andrew Ramos, who dominated nearly all of the snaps on the final two drives, rushed for 51 yards on nine carries.

TAKING CONTROL OF DISTRICT 3-6A

Joseph Nguyen/Texas HS Football

Entering the matchup, Keller Fossil Ridge’s Head coach Tony Baccarini said it was no stranger how dangerous Haltom was offensively and where its focal point lay.

“He was the guy we had to stop. We planned everything for him to run and they got away from him pretty early and that helped us quite a bit,” said Tony Baccarini, Keller Fossil Ridge’s head football coach. “The defense helped [the offense] a ton, too, because [Haltom] had a lot of weapons on offense other than Black.”

Before Friday night, Black had nearly eclipsed the 2,000 total-yard mark. At his current average of 305.5 total yards per game, he was on pace to earn more than 2,300 yards.

“For our defense to do what it did all night long gave us the opportunity to get into a heavy set, run the clock out, and finish the ballgame,” Baccarini said. “This is a good group of kids that play for each other rather than themselves. We had guys step up and play new positions. That defensive bunch gets after it.”

Keller Fossil Ridge is now 3-0 in District 3-6A, as well as at least a game ahead of fellow district champion frontrunners Haltom (2-1) and Keller Central (1-0) High Schools. Keller Central and fourth place Keller (1-1) will play Friday against each other at Keller ISD Stadium.

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