Nine months had passed since the Killeen Kangaroos played a football game, and from the moment the team walked out of its field house down the Al “Doc” WIlson walkway and onto the turf at Leo Buckley Stadium until the time they would walk back after the game, junior linebacker Jalil Bethel knew there was no easing back into things.
“It’s our first game getting back out there, we knew we had to give that first-game intensity,” Bethel said.
The Kangaroo defense proved to be stingy on Friday night holding the Leander Lions to less than 300 yards of total offense and forcing three turnovers in a 20-13 win.
“We had to dig deep and we knew the game was on us,” senior defensive back Jequell Johnson said. “Coach told us the defense had to step up, hold them to zero points and we knew what we needed to do: Play big and make the stops.”
The win gave Killeen head coach Neil Searcy his first victory as Roos head coach in his first opportunity since being hired six months ago. Running back Jamaal King paced the Killeen offense with 131 yards and a touchdown on 24 attempts.
The Roos were back at Buckley for the first time since beating Shoemaker to end the 2014 regular season and the defense was anxious to show off the work it put in during the offseason.
“We feel that if we can give up six points a ballgame, we ought to be winning a bunch of ballgames, if we continue building on that,” Searcy said.
Killeen held Leander to just one touchdown, 12 total first downs, 266 total yards, 118 passing and 148 rushing, while getting three turnovers leading to three Roo points.
But it was the situational plays that changed the momentum and made Killeen’s night.
The Lions only converted on two of its nine attempts (22 percent) on third down and was 0-for-4 on fourth-down attempts.
“The kids did a great job this week preparing for Leander, they really did,” Killeen defensive coordinator Greg Russell said. “They did a good job studying film, asking questions when they were unsure about some things and they had a very good, positive attitude. All they wanted to do was worry about their job and do what they had to do to continue getting the ball back to the offense.”
Leander got into the red zone only once and that opportunity ended in a pooch punt by Lions quarterback Parker McNeil. Leander had a first down from the Killeen 17, but a block in the back followed by a third-down sack forced Leander to give the ball back.
The Roo defense helped out the Roo offense early as Johnson came up with the first takeaway of the season by intercepting McNeil and returning it 15 yards to the Killeen 39 with 3:06 left in the first quarter.
Killeen went on a 10-play, 42-yard drive that ended in Hector Velasquez nailing a 34-yard field goal to put Killeen ahead 3-0 early in the second quarter.
The Roos failed to convert on a fake punt midway through the third quarter and Leander took over on the Killeen 47, but Bethel recovered after a failed quarterback-center exchange to turn the Lions back.
“We really wanted to come out and play,” Bethel said. “We’ve been working hard at practice and we had to come out. The turnovers were big for us because we could give it back to our offense and they could put up points.”
King put the Roos ahead for good with a 7-yard touchdown run with 6:26 left, and on the second play of the ensuing Leander drive, Killeen senior defensive tackle Eriq Velez pounced on a fumble by Leander running back Brandon Plummer to give the Roos the ball on their own 48 with 5:44 remaining.
“Those turnovers are definitely game-changers,” Russell said. “Those are our defensive goals. We want at least three. Ee’d love to have more, but we want at least three in a game and that gives our offense a very good chance on capitalizing on us getting the ball from the other team. We’re definitely proud of the kids’ effort and we’re going to strive to do that every week.”
Russell said that while Leander ran the same offense it did last season, one unknown during game week was exactly what Leander running back Ray Gibson brought to the team. Gibson missed last year’s game with an injury and ended up rushing for 90 yards on 16 attempts against Killeen.
“Once the game got going and once the kids got into the game, everything we worked on was pretty much what we saw last night,” Russell said.
Killeen goes for another win Friday when it visits the Round Rock Dragons (0-1). Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. from Dragon Stadium on the Round Rock High School campus (201 Deep Wood Dr.).
“Starting off with a win feels great going into next week,” Johnson said. “It gives us a lot of momentum.”