New coach, same results for Lake Travis

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Lake Travis (Austin, Texas) will play for a second consecutive Class 4A state football championship Saturday, a shock to almost no one despite an offseason head-coaching change. But the Cavaliers, 15-0 and ranked fourth nationally in the ESPN RISE FAB 50, can still surprise opponents with their versatility.

There's more to the Cavs than the right arm of star quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who has committed to the nearby University of Texas. Lake Travis displayed a relentless running game, which Gilbert is a huge part of, and a quick, alert defense in Saturday's 56-22 victory over Friendswood at Kyle Field on the Texas A&M campus in College Station.

The victory put Lake Travis, which won the 4A Division II title last season and owns a 29-game win streak, in the Division I final against Longview (13-2) in Waco.

The Cavaliers scored touchdowns on six of seven possessions in the first half and limited the Mustangs to one long scoring strike while the outcome was still in doubt and starters were still on the field. The closing minutes were for giving various Lake Travis assistant coaches ice water baths on the sideline.

Friendswood, near Houston, came in with only one loss but was only briefly in the game. Andrew Weber, a senior linebacker for the Mustangs, was transformed into a gushing admirer afterward. "They were perfect," Weber said. "They're a great team, and I know they're going to win state."

Weber also said he was surprised at the quality of Lake Travis' running game and called the Cavs' offensive line fabulous.

Senior Paden Kelley, another University of Texas recruit, is part of the Lake Travis line that not only protects Gilbert in the pocket but also provides ample escort for the Cavaliers' running game. Gilbert threw for 253 yards, ran for 131, scored three touchdowns each in the air and on the ground, and afterward credited the blockers up front with moving the line of scrimmage three or four yards downfield.

"People think of Lake Travis as a throw-it-down-the-field team," said Kelley, his face covered in smudged eye black (a practice that the offensive linemen began with the playoff opener). "When we're able to come out and run the ball real well, I don't think teams are really expecting it."

"They're the unsung heroes," said Lake Travis coach Chad Morris, noting Gilbert has been sacked only three times this season. "They've gotten better through the course of the year."

Winning is S.O.P. at Lake Travis, where some fans wear T-shirts proclaiming "New Season, Same Reason" above a drawing of a hand wearing a ring. But after last season's 15-1 record and Division II crown, coach Jeff Dicus left for 5A Duncanville. Morris was hired following five seasons at Stephenville, a longtime 4A power that launched Art Briles into college coaching. Morris admitted he tried not to rock the boat when he arrived in Stephenville.

"And that didn't work," he said. So when he stepped into a similar scenario last spring at Lake Travis, he decided to "do what we do best."

That meant retooling an offense guided by one of the most prized quarterbacks in the state, the son of former NFL quarterback Gale Gilbert and now the state record holder in career completions. The Cavaliers shifted to a faster-paced, no-huddle offense. Morris estimates Lake Travis has switched from 80 percent passing to 60 percent. Gilbert said he mastered the new system -- which features five teammates on the sideline signaling with various colored or numbered cards on every play -- by the time two-a-days were finished.

Gilbert has thrown for 4,487 yards and rushed for 688. Maybe the young Lake Travis fan at Kyle Field wasn't far-fetched on Saturday by carrying the sign "Garrett for Heisman."

The Lake Travis offense has broken 50 points in nine of the past 11 games, but it hasn't had to win shootouts. The defense frustrated Friendswood at every turn.

Senior defensive end Ryan Erxleben -- son of Russell Erxleben, former All-American kicker and punter at Texas -- said the Cavs' defense doesn't mind performing well in relative obscurity.

"We've kind of learned to accept that," Erxleben said. "We're getting the job done."

Lake Travis will face a Longview team with an offense that also comes into the championship game on a high note. The Lobos' average playoff score is 46-26. Junior quarterback Aaron Johnson hit 10 of 11 passes for 278 yards and four touchdowns in defeating Denton Guyer 41-30 at Texas Stadium.

Lake Travis has outscored its five playoff opponents by an average score of 55-20, and reserves have been on the field for at least a few scoring drives. Morris, who won a 4A title at Bay City in 2000, said he has been asked through the course of the playoffs whether there is any potential drawback to the lopsided postseason wins.

His response: "Our competition has been getting better every round, but so are we."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.