BANGS — Playoff implications are already at stake just two weeks into the district campaign as the reigning 8-2A champion Bangs Dragons invade Rogan Field to tangle with the resurgent San Saba Armadillos at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Both teams enter the contest at 1-0 in district action and, along with Brady (5-0, 1-0) and Comanche (5-0, 1-0), are considered the four favorites for the league’s three playoff berths at this juncture.
Bangs (3-1, 1-0) escaped with a 21-15 home victory over winless Early (0-5, 0-1) to open district play last week, while San Saba (4-1, 1-0) crushed Dublin, 35-6, for its second two-game win streak of the year.
“In this district, you worry all week long about how you’re going to play on Friday, then you come out and get a win but you don’t get to enjoy it very long because you have to start worrying about the next opponent,” said Bangs head coach Chuck Lipsey. “That’s just part of coaching and the way this district is. We have to have our kids prepared to get out there and play hard.”
An afterthought come district time over the last five seasons, San Saba — under the direction of first-year head coach Jeff Pannell — has already collected its most victories in a single season since 2003, which was the last time the Armadillos reached the playoffs.
Lipsey attributes the Armadillos’ turnaround to not only the return of 15 combined offensive and defensive starters, but their play in the trenches as well.
“One thing that makes them as good as they are is the way their offensive and defensive lines are playing,” Lipsey said. “Their offensive and defensive lines are as good as any we’ve seen this year. They do a good job up front, and they’ve got some good skill kids behind them.
“Coach Pannell has got them playing well, they’ve got some wins under their belts and they’re playing with a lot of enthusiasm and confidence. But the way they are playing in the trenches on both sides of the ball is their secret to success right now.”
During their current two-game win streak, the Armadillos are averaging 35 points and 384 yards of total offense per game — with 314 of those yards coming on the ground. Jack Whitten has amassed 376 yards rushing and five touchdowns over the last two games for the Armadillos.
Bangs counters with a defense that surrendered just 215 yards in last week’s win over Early, and limited the Longhorns to a mere 48 yards rushing on 31 carries — an average of 1.5 yards per attempt.
“Offensively they like to run the toss out of the I-formation, and if you don’t stop that they will run it all night long,” Lipsey said. “That’s their bread and butter play, but hopefully we are able to slow down those guys a little bit in their power game and make them throw the ball. When they get in a bind and in third-and-long, they’ll get in the shotgun and throw it around. They’ve got four pretty good receivers, so we have to cover their receivers in the situations when they have to throw the football.”
The Dragons also did a solid job containing Early’s passing attack last week as they held the Longhorns to 167 yards through the air and just a 33 percent completion rate (11-of-33), while intercepting a pair of passes.
On the flip side of the ball, Bangs would like to get its ground game in gear after mustering just 53 yards on 33 carries last week. Corey Sanchez led the way with 31 yards on seven carries — all in the second half — while Marcus Berniard was held to 16 yards on nine rushes, one of which was a 7-yard score.
San Saba, meanwhile, surrendered just 128 total yards to Dublin last week.
“The biggest keys for us offensively are establishing the running game and protecting the quarterback,” Lipsey said. “Defensively they run a 3-4 and have a big nose guard and two tackles that are excellent players. We have to make sure we get those guys blocked. They also have some quickness behind those guys and they do a good job flying to the football, but those three up front really do a great job.”
San Saba’s defensive weakness to date has been stopping the pass, which could bode well for the Dragons. Two games ago, the Armadillos allowed 282 of Johnson City’s 342 yards through the air in a come-from-behind 35-27 win for San Saba.
Meanwhile, Bangs quarterback Tyler Fuqua had a solid outing last week, completing 14-of-22 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns without receivers Jorden Mason and Quenton Sprowls — who are expected to suit up Friday night. Issac Brown caught a team-high five receptions for 34 yards, Marcus Smith added four catches for 63 yards and a 36-yard touchdown and Doug Drury and Grant Bear — who grabbed an 11-yard touchdown catch — each finished with two receptions for 19 yards.
“Match up-wise, throwing and catching are going to have to be big for us,” Lipsey said. “Last week we threw and caught the ball well and caught two touchdowns right before halftime. If we have a big game throwing and catching, that should open up our running game.”
Aside from the play in the trenches, Lipsey feels turnovers and field position could also play a huge role in determining the victor. Bangs won the field position battle against Early in a third-quarter war of punts last week, which eventually led to a 39-yard scoring drive that gave the Dragons a 12-point lead entering the fourth period. Bangs also turned the ball over just once, compared to two giveaways by Early.
“We have to eliminate turnovers, try and create turnovers and win the field position war,” Lipsey said. “This is a good match up and should be another hard fought football game.”
With little room for error in the district race, a 2-0 start is crucial not only to the Dragons’ bid to reach the playoffs for the second season in a row, but also to repeat as 8-2A champions.
“You’ve got about four teams in our district that are playing pretty well, so you’re going to have to be ready to play every Friday night,” Lipsey said. “If we’re able to get another win under our belt this Friday, it would be just as big as last week’s.”