With their bye behind them and the 2-3A opener on the horizon, the Brownwood Lions will venture southeast for their final tune-up prior to the start of district action as they battle the Class 4A Manor Mustangs at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Despite Manor’s 0-4 record — with a pair of 41-0 losses to Liberty Hill and Burnet, both teams Brownwood has defeated this season — Brownwood first-year head coach Bob Shipley stated the Lions (3-1) aren’t looking past the Mustangs.
“All the kids have seen lots of film on Manor, and it doesn’t take long for you to realize that they have a lot of potential and a lot of really good players. They just haven’t been able to get it together yet,” Shipley said. “Having two weeks to prepare for us, we expect for them to be much improved when we go down there Friday. I think our kids are smart enough to watch the film and realize they are a very athletic team that could pose some big problems for us if they are having a good night.”
Like Manor, the Lions have also had two weeks off, which has allowed several of Brownwood injuries to heal. The only players expected to miss Friday’s game are quarterback Graylon Brown, who is likely out for the season, and receiver/cornerback Jaxon Shipley, who is being held out for precautionary measures.
“We should have everybody back but Graylon and Jaxon,” Shipley said. “Graylon is probably out for the year. He wound up having to have surgery and had a couple of screws put in his leg last Friday. Jaxon could possibly play this week if we needed him to, but we’re going to try and hold him out.”
With the Lions at almost full strength, Shipley would prefer to see a crisp performance on both sides of the ball with the district opener looming. Placing the bye two weeks before the district opener was the design of former head coach Steve Freeman in order to ensure the Lions would shake off any rust before league play started.
“I think Coach Freeman’s idea behind having a game before district starts was to work out the kinks and not play your first district game after being off for two weeks,” Shipley said. “We’ll use this as a game to evaluate ourselves and do some fine tuning before we start district next week. This is still a game we’ve worked hard to prepare for and plan on doing whatever it takes to win it.”
The Lions are coming off their most convincing victory of the season, a 34-17 win over Liberty Hill in which Brownwood took a 31-point lead into the fourth period despite being without seven starters.
The victory also marked the first start for sophomore Mitch Stephens at quarterback, who threw for 115 yards in the first quarter alone en route to completing 5-of-10 passes for 168 yards with one touchdown.
Dillon Ellis caught three passes for 88 yards and a touchdown, while Vance McShan had the other two receptions totaling 80 yards. Ellis — one of nine different Lions with at least one reception and the only player with double-digit catches — leads Brownwood with 16 catches for 265 yards. Cade Johnson is next with nine receptions for 99 yards.
Brownwood also compiled 225 of its 393 total yards against Liberty Hill on the ground as Levi Perez rushed for 99 yards, Stehl Ratliff chipped in 81 yards and a score and Derek Longoria finished with 40 yards and a touchdown. For the season, Perez has tallied a team-high 205 yards, Ratliff has 176 yards and three touchdowns and Longoria has added 94 yards.
Continuing the offensive balance — the Lions pass for 178.8 yards and rush for 162.5 yards per game — and the further development of Stephens at quarterback are the objectives Shipley most wants to see accomplished against Manor.
“We want to be consistent with our running and our passing and be as balanced as we possibly can,” Shipley said. “We also want to see Mitch continue to improve and we’ll continue to add more to what we’re asking him to do as time goes on. Mitch did a good job against Liberty Hill and we want to see him continue to improve on his decision making. The more we put on his plate, the more he’s going to have to make good decisions.
“We’ve also got three good running backs that have been running pretty good lately, and ran good against Liberty Hill. We want to be able to continue to run the ball because we feel like we have to be able to do that to beat the teams we’re going to have to beat in district.”
Over the last three games, the Manor defense is allowing an average of 311.7 total yards per game, but has forced seven turnovers during that stretch. Based on Manor’s scheme, however, Shipley feels the Lions again have the opportunity to make big plays. Against Liberty Hill, five Brownwood offensive snaps covered at least 25 yards, including three plays of 40 yards or better.
“Manor will roll the dice and typically blitz a lot and try and disrupt things,” Shipley said. “When they do that, they give you some opportunities to get the ball to the receivers if you can get the pass off. They’ve got some good cover guys, but the schemes they run are not real complicated. The defensive coordinator is a guy who was the defensive coordinator at Graham over the last several years, and I think he’s trying to be pretty basic with them and trying to get them to learn his system and do the little things well.”
On the other side of the ball, the Lions yielded 306 total yards to Liberty Hill, which is right around the 308.3 yards of total offense — 164.8 rushing and 143.5 passing — Brownwood allows on average.
The Lions did force three turnovers in their last outing, including a 77-yard fumble return and a 67-yard interception return by Longoria for touchdowns.
With only one starter expected to miss time on defense Friday night, Shipley expects an even more impressive performance from the Lions in Manor.
“We’re closer to being back to normal defensively,” Shipley said. “Jaxon is the only guy we’ll be missing, but Logan Gough has done a good job back there. We’ll have Luke Chastain back and work him in back there, and having Zac Green back at linebacker is going to be really big for us.
“Against a team like Manor, we can’t let them make big plays on us. We have to try and create turnovers and play as aggressively as we can.”
The Mustangs average just 10.5 points per contest and have not scored since their second game. Over its last three outings, Manor has averaged a mere 184.3 yards of total offense — 102.3 rushing and 82 passing — and turned the ball over 10 times.
Manor will line up in the wildcat in their spread formation, as the Mustangs attempt to get the ball into the hands of L.D. Williams and Reginald Middleton as often as possible. In the last three games, Middleton has completed 10-of-25 passes for 175 yards, caught four passes for 74 yards and rushed for 20 yards. Williams, meanwhile, has connected on 14-of-25 passes for 122 yards, rushed for 173 yards and caught five passes for 49 yards.
Other players to watch for the Mustangs are receivers Javonte Taylor (7-32), Straton Jones (6-49) and Devin Boynton (6-37), along with quarterback Zack Humphries (6-of-8, 49 yards; 29 yards rushing) and tailback Jaquan Sorrells (62 yards rushing).
“They spread it out and are playing a couple of different guys at quarterback,” Shipley said. “One of them comes in for more of a wildcat set, and they try and run the ball with him more. In the film we’ve seen, when that young man is not at quarterback, he’s at receiver and they’re trying to throw the ball to him. They have some weapons, but they want to get the ball in the hands of their play makers. They don’t do a whole lot of stuff, but they do try and spread you out and create some running lanes for their guys. They are certainly more of a running team out of the spread than a passing team.”
Unlike last year’s 50-30 victory over Manor, in which the game was tied at 22 at halftime, the Lions would prefer a quick start that puts the game out of reach. Brownwood was able to achieve that goal against Liberty Hill, scoring 27 points before halftime.
“We don’t want to start off slow,” Shipley said. “Having two weeks off, my experience has been sometimes it takes a while to get back to game speed. I want us to start fast and finish strong. I’m also always looking for effort through all four quarters, and obviously in district play we’re going to have to play four full quarters of football every week. But with this being the first time we’ve played in a couple of weeks, I certainly want to see us hit our stride pretty quick in this game.”