A pair of Brown County teams will be involved in first-place showdowns in their respective districts Friday night.
In Blanket, the undefeated Tigers (7-0, 2-0) will host the No. 2 Strawn Greyhounds (7-0, 2-0) as two of the six remaining unbeaten teams in Division I do battle in District 10 action.
In the Division II ranks, the No. 5 Zephyr Bulldogs (5-2, 2-0) will venture to Cherokee to face the surprising No. 9 Indians (5-2, 2-0) with the top spot in Division 13 at stake.
Both games are slated to begin at 7:30 p.m.
Blanket vs. Strawn
Blanket’s undefeated start has been a surprise to some, but Tigers head coach Darin Barrow felt this scenario was possible, especially with five starters back on both sides of the ball.
“We had high hopes we would be in this situation when we came to this ball game,” Barrow said. “We knew we had to stay healthy and have things go our way.”
Injuries ravaged Blanket last season, but the Tigers healed enough to pull an upset over Santa Anna and secure a playoff berth despite a 4-6 record. Barrow is hoping another upset is in the cards Friday night, but realizes the Tigers will have to play a perfect game.
“To come away with the win we have to play spotless football,” Barrow said. “We have to do all the little things right and not turn over the football to stay in the game. We have to match them score for score and try to be in it at the end so we can have a chance at it.”
Strawn enters the game averaging 61.7 points per game, while giving up just 9.4 points per game with three shutouts.
“Strawn is very good both offensively and defensively,” Barrow said. “They’re big, strong and fast and they deserve the ranking they have. They’ve been a handful for everybody they’ve played. They’re very physical on both sides of the football and controlling the line of scrimmage has been the key to them winning.”
The Tigers, who boast one of the most impressive offenses in the state with an average 66.5 points per game, will attempt to make a dent in the Greyhound defense. Blanket is led by spread back Brian Box, who has rushed for 1,858 yards and 33 touchdowns, while completing 18-of-38 passes for 432 yards and six touchdowns.
Early in the season, Box was the focus of the Blanket offense, but the Tigers have spread the wealth in district play.
In last week’s 70-22 win over Gustine, Box rushed for a season-low 158 yards and three touchdowns, while Caleb Reich chipped in 129 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
The Tigers also passed for a season-high 294 yards as Box was 3-of-5 for 146 yards with two touchdowns, while Corey Wetzel chipped in an 8-of-10 effort for 128 yards and two scores.
Leading receiver Chris Boykin grabbed five receptions for 112 yards and a score, while Darrell Greenwood caught three touchdown passes totaling 128 yards.
“We’ve started spreading the ball around, trying to open up the offense a little bit,” Barrow said. “A lot of teams are trying to key on Brian, and this opens up other avenues for us. Brian’s also been getting a little banged up, and some of these other kids are having to step up and keep us clicking down the field.”
As impressive as the Tiger offense has been, the defense has carried its weight as well. In six games - not counting one forfeit win - Blanket has forced 22 turnovers. Last week’s contest was the first time the Tigers did not create at least three turnovers as Gustine coughed up the ball just twice.
“Any time you control the turnover factor you’re in the ball game,” Barrow said. “Sometimes that could mean the difference in a 4-6 season and a 7-0 start. It’s been a great bonus for us. We’ve really not turned it over too much and we’ve been lucky enough to fall on the football at the right time.”
In the Zephyr-Cherokee showdown, the Bulldogs are the favorite after winning district championships each of the last two years. Cherokee’s start has surprised many as the Indians were a combined 3-17 the last two seasons.
“They’re starting to play pretty good together,” said Zephyr head coach Landon Buffe. “This is a big turnaround for them. They’ve definitely got some offensive weapons that we’re going to worry about.”
Cherokee carries a five-game win streak into Friday’s contest, having defeated Moran (52-6), Lometa (38-36), Mullin (52-34), Brookesmith (52-16) and Paint Rock (90-44), after opening with losses to Star (58-8) and Marble Falls Faith (70-21).
But the Bulldogs - who have won four straight - also are hitting their stride as Zephyr is finally getting healthy. Cord Biddy, last year’s district defensive player of the year, is among the recent returnees. In last week’s 47-0 win over Lohn, Biddy led Zephyr with eight tackles and a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“We’re starting to get healthy, but we’ve still got a couple that are out,” Buffe said. “We need them to get healthy and get everybody back and we can start running on all cylinders.
“Having Cord back helps a whole lot. It gives us more confidence and another big body over there. We played a freshman and a sophomore in his place that were giving up a lot of size.”
Offensively, the Bulldogs continue to be led by spread back Jason Hughes, but recently have displayed some diversity.
Hughes has completed 68-of-122 passes for 1,180 yards with 17 touchdowns, while rushing for 1,091 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Other weapons include receivers Cody Wallin (29-539, 7 TDs) and Ethan Fisher (10-244, 5 TDs), while Haustin Simmons rushed for a 71-yard touchdown last week and Greg Faubion has caught a 9-yard touchdown pass, completed a 19-yard pass and rushed twice for 93 yards and a score in district action.
“We’re trying to make sure we take care of the younger kids and get them involved so they are able to step in,” Buffe said.
As for the key to victory, Buffe feels turnovers could be the deciding factor.
“I think it will be a good ball game, it will just come down to turnovers,” Buffe said. “We have to win the turnover battle.”