The wait is almost over as playoff football returns to Brownwood Friday night when the District 2-3A champion Lions venture to Texas Tech’s Jones AT&T Stadium for the second time this season.
Brownwood (8-2) — which faced 5A Lubbock Monterey at Tech in the first scrimmage of the season — will challenge the District 1-3A third-place Dalhart Golden Wolves (6-4) in Class 3A Division II, Region I bi-district action at 8 p.m. Friday. The Lions are seeking their first playoff win since 2006, when Brownwood advanced to the Class 4A Division II, Region I final.
While first-year head coach Bob Shipley wasn’t necessarily aiming for Brownwood to play its first-round playoff game at Tech, the fact that the Lions have already stepped on the Jones AT&T Stadium turf this season could play into their hands.
“The ‘wow’ effect will certainly affect Dalhart more than us because we’ve been there, played there and know what it is. It is an advantage for sure,” Shipley said. “It’s a nice byproduct of the decision (to play at Tech), but we just couldn’t find any place to play. In the first round there are so many teams in the playoffs, especially out in West Texas, that you’re limited with the number of venues with turf. We felt like we needed to play on turf in case there’s some weather.”
While the Lions own the venue edge, Dalhart possesses the advantage in playoff experience as the Golden Wolves are making their fourth straight trip to the postseason. Dalhart, however, has not advanced past the first round in any of its last three appearances — falling to Graham twice and Sweetwater once during that span.
What the Lions may be lacking in postseason experience, they make up for in momentum as Brownwood carries a season-best four-game win streak into the playoffs, its longest string of consecutive victories since the 2006 postseason run. Brownwood’s recent roll is one of many reasons Shipley anticipates the Lions having no playoff jitters Friday night.
“I expect them to be ready to play,” Shipley said. “The last two games were playoff games in our minds. That’s how we prepared for them and that’s how the kids dealt with them.”
Dalhart, on the other hand, has flip-flopped wins and losses since Oct. 9 — with victories coming against 6-4 Perryton (19-13 last week), 1-9 Levelland (48-0 on Oct. 23) and 3-7 Lubbock Cooper (36-15 on Oct. 9). The Golden Wolves lost to district co-champs Lubbock Estacado (27-17 on Oct. 29) and Borger (10-7 on Oct. 16).
Friday’s contest could turn into a defensive battle as both teams bring impressive resumés into the showdown.
Brownwood allows just 17.5 points and 278.1 total yards per game, and is coming off last week’s second-half performance in which it held Snyder’s vaunted offense to 40 total yards and two first downs.
End Joseph Henry leads Brownwood with 91 tackles, along with four sacks and three fumble recoveries. Linebacker Tyler Harth has collected a team-high 10 sacks out of his 51 tackles. Other key defensive contributors include linebacker Caden Ellis (81 tackles, two sacks, two fumble recoveries), tackles Levi Westerman (79 tackles, two sacks, two fumble recoveries) and Jorge De La Paz (77 tackles, three sacks), linebacker Payton Christopher (73 tackles) and safety Derek Longoria (70 tackles, three interceptions).
“Ever since the Wylie game they’ve really tightened up,” Shipley said. “The best thing about that is they’re making stops when they need to make the stops. Coming out and holding Snyder in the second half the way we did was a big confidence builder. Our defense is certainly a bright spot for us and is continuing to improve every week, as it should when you’re going into the playoffs.”
Dalhart’s defense boasts even better numbers as the Golden Wolves surrender just 12 points per contest. Only two opponents have scored more than 20 points against the Golden Wolves defense, and Dalhart has tallied three shutouts. Dalhart’s four losses were all by 10 points or less, with two losses being by a field goal and one deficit being a single point.
Last week against Perryton, Dalhart did not allow a point in the second half and gave up just 216 total yards while forcing three turnovers.
“They’re very proud of their defense and they should be,” Shipley said. “They have a great amount of size up front with the defensive line and they’re going to be a challenge for us. They do have some guys going both ways, which we feel could be an advantage for us in terms of wearing them down a little bit. I can’t tell on film how much speed they have, so we’re going to have to test them out and see how they run with our guys. I don’t think they’ve seen as much spread as we’re going to show them.”
While the Lions relied heavily on the air attack early in the season, the ground game is picking up steam. Last week marked the first time Brownwood tallied more rushing yards (193) than passing yards (148) in a game this season.
For the year, the Lions average 27.8 points and 379.7 total yards — 229 passing and 150.7 rushing — per contest.
Quarterback Vance McShan, in only four starts, has completed 81-of-130 passes for 1,141 yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions. Jaxon Shipley, who has appeared in just six games, leads the Lions with 37 receptions for 622 yards with seven touchdowns.
Brownwood’s passing attack is far from a two-man show, however, as Dillon Ellis (33-517, 2 TDs), Luke Chastain (21-330, 3 TDs) and Cade Johnson (20-311, 2 TDs) have each made big plays throughout the season.
On the ground, tailback Stehl Ratliff (113-722, 11 TDs) is coming off back-to-back 100-yard rushing efforts, while Levi Perez (56-297, TD) and Longoria (45-215, 4 TDs) have also provided a spark in the backfield.
As Brownwood’s offense continues to become more diverse, it creates even more problems for opposing defenses.
“Stehl has two or three games in a row with 100 yards, and that’s a tribute to him and the offensive line, especially,” Shipley said. “That’s what it’s going to take for us sometimes. In fact, the last two big games we’ve had against Graham and Snyder, both of those games I think were decided by us being able to run the ball effectively in the second half. It’s something we’re proud of, but it’s something we have to continue to work on as it becomes a more vital part of our offense.”
One area where the offense will have to improve over last week is with turnovers, as the Lions gave the ball away on four straight first-half possessions, including three on interceptions.
“We tried to force the ball sometimes, but we have to eliminate turnovers,” Shipley said. “We had four turnovers in the first half last week and if we do that Friday night, it could spell disaster.
“Snyder had two guys on Jaxon and sometimes an outside backer walked out, too. We just have to be smart enough to take advantage of where they’re moving those people from. But it makes us feel a whole lot better when we’re able to run the ball like we were in the second half and we don’t have to rely on our passing game as much.”
Though Dalhart has based out of a split defense for most of the season, Shipley expects the Golden Wolves to come up with some new wrinkles, just like every other opponent Brownwood has faced.
“We’re going to have to do a good job reacting to what they give us” Shipley said. “Every week we see a different defense when teams play us than we’ve seen on film. They try and take Jaxon away or Stehl away, so we have to do a good job of responding and adjusting to how they line up. I really don’t think they’re going to line up like they have against the other teams they’ve played.”
When Dalhart has the ball, the Golden Wolves have configured their own unique brand of offense, according to Shipley.
“It sounds strange, but they run a combination of the Wing-T and the spread,” Shipley said. “They took two different philosophies and blended them together to make one. “They’re a running team and they have a big offensive line, but their best back is out for the year. It’s going to come down to us being able to control the line of scrimmage and shut down their running game.”
In the absence of Adrian Ruiz, who suffered a season-ending injury a few weeks back, Davonte Burks has become Dalhart’s main offensive weapon as he’s a threat to both run and catch the ball out of the backfield.
Other players to keep an eye on are fullback Nick Young, quarterback Noah Jesko, receivers Rey Lujan and Kaleb Grant and kicker Zinzan Puttick.
In the Golden Wolves’ 19-13 playoff-clinching win over Perryton last week, Burks scored on a 32-yard run and a 50-yard fumble return, while Puttick kicked field goals of 25 and 36 yards. Jesko threw for 166 yards, completing 8-of-17 passes, as Lujan finished with 42 receiving yards and Grant had 35 yards receiving.
Dalhart’s game plan will likely mirror that of Snyder, La Vega and Liberty Hill, as the Golden Wolves will attempt to keep the ball away from the Brownwood offense and chew up huge chunks of time on their possessions.
“We have to be patient and make some stops and have some three-and-outs with our defense,” Shipley said. “They’re the kind of team that will eat up the clock and keep the ball away from you if they can. But we also have to make sure they don’t have any big plays.”
Friday’s winner will face either Seminole (7-3) or Clint (6-4) next weekend in the area round of the playoffs.