Kilgore’s defensive unit, led by linebacker Eli Caruthers (14), has terrorized opponents this season, including Athens last week. The Ragin’ Red (7-2) hosts Lindale (7-2) Friday night at 7:30, to decide the District 9-4A, Division I championship.

This Friday’s Kilgore-Lindale game has been building for a while – like, since it became apparent that the Bulldogs and Eagles weren’t only the best teams in the district, but that they were far and away the best two teams in the district.

Kilgore (7-2 overall, 5-0 in District 9-4A, Division I) hosts Lindale (7-2, 5-0) this Friday night at 7:30, here at R.E. St. John Memorial Stadium in what amounts to the district’s championship game: the winner will go to the University Interscholastic League’s Class 4A playoffs as the 9-4A champion, and top seed; the loser will go in as number two.

The playoffs begin next week. Palestine is locked in at third, and the winner of Henderson-Chapel Hill – to be played Friday at Chapel Hill – gets the district’s fourth and final playoff spot.

For anyone not planning to attend but who’s interested in the game, see it streamed online by going to the Kilgore ISD website, and following the links, or hear the call of the game by Ragin’ Red Broadcasting in a couple of ways: on the radio, of course, on KDOK 105.3-FM, and also online at

Kilgore coach Mike Wood is in his 26{sup}th{/sup} season with the program, and his 11{sup}th{/sup} as head coach and athletic director. The Bulldogs, though, haven’t faced Lindale much in their history: just eight total meetings between the two, with Kilgore owning a 6-2 advantage in the series. They haven’t played since 2009, when they were district rivals.

Lindale’s season has mirrored Kilgore’s, in several ways. The Eagles, like Kilgore, lost two of their non-district games: a close one at Midlothian Heritage (28-21, similar to Kilgore’s loss to Gladewater), and another one to state-ranked Gilmer (56-49), much like Kilgore’s season-opening loss to 4A number one Carthage.

Also like Kilgore, the Eagles have ran through the district schedule unscathed, beating Mabank easily (62-21), Chapel Hill (52-6), Henderson (34-7), Athens (35-16), and Palestine (52-20, last week).

Another resemblance between Kilgore and Lindale: the offensive balance. Kilgore’s Dalton McElyea is arguably having the best season of any Kilgore quarterback since Cooper Coldiron graduated in 2013, and the Kilgore rushing game, led by Tray Epps, can rival any running game in the state.

Lindale also has balance. Quarterback Sam Peterson and running back Jordan Jenkins, a Baylor commit, have the Eagles’ offense running like a finely-tuned machine. In last week’s game against Palestine, Jenkins scored three touchdowns and had 102 rushing yards; Peterson went 9-of-15 for 126 yards passing, but had five carries for 98 yards and two touchdowns, and one of his receiving targets, Jacob Seekford, had four catches for 117 yards and a score.

The similarities continue on defense. Kilgore has Donovan Adkins, who’s actually an all-around threat, as a defensive back, as a runner, as a return man on special teams and as a receiver. Adkins not only leads the team in touchdown catches, but scores in a variety of ways: pick-sixes (as he did against Palestine), returns (again, as he did against Palestine), rushing touchdowns and receiving touchdowns, and fumble recoveries for touchdowns (as he did last week at Athens).

Lindale has a special defensive back, too: Airik Williams, who has seven interceptions this year, one returned 38 yards last week for a score.

But, now, Kilgore can hold its own. Guided by Wood’s steady hand, as well as offensive coordinator Jay Dean and defensive coordinator Chad Loper, this Bulldogs football team looks to be Kilgore’s best since 2017.

Loper’s defensive unit has been masterful, especially in the district portion of the schedule, and held off a scrappy Chapel Hill team late in the game to seal that win.

Linebacker Eli Caruthers leads the team in tackles – 93 of them, most of them bone-crushers. He has 61 solo tackles, eight for loss (leads the team), three sacks and five quarterback hurries. How about Brian Brown, another linebacker (who’s a receiver on offense)? Brown has 78 tackles, 43 solo, five for loss, two sacks, an interception, a pass break-up and three hurries.

Davin Rider, who seems to be everywhere the ball is, has 68 tackles, 48 of them solo, three for loss, two sacks, an interception (for a touchdown against Henderson), and two pass break-ups. Alex Chavez has 52 stops, 29 of them solo, seven tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and six hurries.

Chris Ervin has 49 tackles, 30 solo, four for loss, a pass break-up, and a blocked kick. And don’t forget Kilgore’s D-line. Kaden Kenney has 44 tackles, 20 solo, three for loss, two sacks and leads the team in pursuing the QB: 17 hurries. Brantley Propes has 34 tackles and three sacks, three tackles for loss, two hurries and a fumble recovery. Hunter Lewis has 21 tackles, one for loss and a sack, and eight hurries, and then there’s a talented secondary: Adkins, of course, with 30 tackles, two interceptions, a couple of blocked kicks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, along with Marcaelin Caraway, Dalton Smith (who has two picks), and Corey Rider.

The Redshirt Dog defense has allowed 1,534 rushing yards this year (about 170 a game), but just 578 passing yards (just 64 a game!) and has forced 31 three-and-outs on 97 opponents’ possessions. Defensive penalties: not many, just 21 all season for 264 yards, an average of only about 2 per game.

Before the season started, Kilgore’s most inexperienced group would probably have been the offensive line, where many people had questions.

Questions answered.

The guys have not only stepped up, but they’ve helped the Bulldogs accumulate 1,773 rushing yards, 1,548 passing yards, and have largely protected McElyea very well. Center Josh Kennel, Cayden Croley, Devin Coleman, Francisco Morales, and Christian Estrella have gotten the bulk of the playing time up front, and have performed in outstanding fashion.

And Epps is thankful for them, for sure. Epps has had a monster season, far and away leading Kilgore in rushing with 1,436 yards and 18 touchdowns – three last week in Athens – on 153 carries, averaging a ridiculous 9.4 yard a carry.

As mentioned, McElyea, a senior, has been very, very good at quarterback. He’s completed 100-of-156 passes, an efficient 64 percent, for 1,505 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. Backup Da’Marion Van Zandt, just a sophomore, definitely looks like the future with good size and a big arm, and has a touchdown pass to his credit, too.

The two have tons of targets, seemingly all of them with great hands. Jermaine Roney, who was injured last year, is just a junior, but leads the team in catches (25), for 332 yards and two touchdowns. Adkins, who is just a dynamic player, is second with 22 for 427 yards and five scores.

Cade Pippen, sure-handed at receiver and as the team’s punter, has 15 catches for 168 yards and a score. Brown has 12 for 259 yards and a score, and Epps has 10, for 187 yards and two scores. Corey Rider has six, for 41 yards. Thomas Hattaway, Matthew Tyeski and Dadrian Franklin each have three, Omarion Smith has two, one of them a touchdown, and Jacobe Weick has one.

Kilgore’s kicking game is solid. Pippen has settled into that role and is now averaging 36 yards per punt, including a 55-yarder in Athens last week. Chris Baldazo has been fantastic for the Bulldogs’ special teams. He’s 43-of-44 in extra point kicks and 4-of-6 in field goal attempts this year, his long a 43-yarder.


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