EARLY — Quarterback Trace Evans found success through the air but couldn’t keep pace with the Brady ground game as the Early Longhorns dropped a 43-18 decision to open District 3-3A Division I play Friday night.

Evans finished the night with 12 completions on 22 attempts for 206 yards. He threw one touchdown and an interception. His counterpart, Brady quarterback Caleb Turnell, sustained a leg injury early in the second quarter and was relieved by junior Will Hollis. The two Brady quarterbacks combined for 76 passing yards.

Trailing 36-12 late in the third quarter, Early got the ball at its own 42 yard line after a Brady turnover on downs. The Longhorns drove to the Brady 25 when Evans dropped back and found senior receiver Drew Sessler open on the right sideline inside the 5. Sessler’s athletic leaping grab landed him just inside the end zone and cut the Brady lead to 36-18 after a failed two-point conversion.

It seemed momentum had swung fully to Early when the Longhorns successfully recovered an onside kick at midfield with just seconds left in the third quarter.

The Longhorns moved the ball into the red zone, but Evans was flushed from the pocket on 4th and 3 and was unable to connect with Sessler a second time in the back corner of the end zone, resulting in a turnover on downs and effectively ending the Longhorns’ comeback threat.

Brady got the scoring started on its first possession of the game, driving the ball 70 yards for a quick first-quarter score. Zack Vaughn, a 6-foot-2 senior fullback, received most of the carries on that drive before Turnell scrambled the final 13 yards for the opening touchdown. After an Early three-and-out, Brady drove down the field again and scored from 42 yards on a screen pass from Turnell to senior Austin Allen.

Refusing to let the game get out of hand, Early responded with a 70-yard drive of its own. Evans hit junior Devyn Burns in stride down the right sideline to cap the drive with a 34-yard touchdown pass, and a missed extra point kept Early within eight, 14-6.

Brady, though, scored yet another touchdown on its next drive. On a designed quarterback run, Turnell was able to reverse field after running into a pile of Longhorns and break a 25-yard run to the Early 9 yard line. Sophomore running back Ryan Decker finished the drive with a touchdown on the next play.

Decker ended the night as Brady’s leading rusher, tallying a robust 246 yards on 20 carries with two touchdowns.

After Turnell left with the injury, backup quarterback Hollis struggled to find his rhythm. A bad punt gave Early good field position at its own 46, but Brady senior DB Dylan Work caught and returned to the Early 18. Decker broke off a 58-yard run to begin that Bulldogs drive, then ended it with a 10-yard touchdown to put Brady up 28-6.

Early was able to score again before halftime, jumping on a Hollis fumbled snap and finding the end zone plays later when Evans hit Burns in the right flat and Burns sprinted up the sideline for a 50-yard score. Early was unable, however, to sustain enough drives in the second half, while Brady continued to eat clock with Decker, senior back Daniel Mendoza and designed runs for Hollis.

Hollis ended the game with 146 yards on 11 carries. As a team, the Bulldogs racked up 544 rushing yards on 47 attempts on the night.

Early head coach Blake Sandford said he was proud of his team’s effort after the game. He praised Evans and the offense for a successful passing attack.

“More than anything, I saw his composure,” Sandford said of his quarterback. “He’s under fire sometimes, but he holds his composure and still tries to make plays.”

He said his receivers were doing a better job of translating practice-field success into Friday night plays.

“They make those plays in practice all the time,” Sandford said. “It’s just putting it on the field Friday nights, in pressure, that’s what I’m proud of. They kept trying to answer the bell.”

Sandford’s Longhorns were penalized only three times on the evening, while the Bulldogs racked up 85 penalty yards. Sandford said he stressed level-headed play to his team each week.

“We work on that,” he said. “We work on being full of character and being calm and just trying to play our game.”

Early returns to action next Friday night with another home district contest against the undefeated Clyde Bulldogs.