Through the first two games of the season, the Brownwood Lions couldn’t have scripted a better start. But after suffering their first shutout loss since 2005 at Stephenville last week, the Lions will now see how well they handle adversity as injuries have shaken up the lineup and left them short-handed as they attempt to rebound against the Liberty Hill Panthers.
Brownwood (2-1) will host Liberty Hill (1-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Gordon Wood Stadium in the Lions’ final game before next week’s bye.
The Lions could be without as many as six starters when they take the field against Liberty Hill, but most are expected to be back for the pre-district finale on Oct. 2.
“We’re going to have several guys out this week, and that’s the bad news,” said Lions head coach Bob Shipley. “The good news is by the time we play Manor, we should have everybody back except (quarterback) Graylon (Brown). Graylon is probably out for six weeks.”
Though injuries played a factor in the 35-0 loss to Stephenville, Shipley also felt the Lions’ effort wasn’t up to par last week.
“It still has me scratching my head,” Shipley said. “Obviously we had some injuries, but we didn’t play at the level we’ve been playing at. You’d hope in a big game like that the players would really rise to the occasion. We had some really good individual performances, but overall as a team we didn’t play well.
“We didn’t act like we were ready to play and we didn’t rise to the challenge, especially when people started getting hurt and they got up on us. I don’t know if it was just a bad night or an off night. We’ve gone back to work and hopefully we’ll have a better performance next game.”
Shipley compared Liberty Hill, and its growth into a state powerhouse over the last decade under head coach Jerry Vance, to Stephenville and the way the Yellow Jackets surged with Art Briles at the helm.
“Jerry Vance has done a great job,” said Shipley, who arrived at Burnet when Vance took over at Liberty Hill in 2001. “It’s been really amazing to watch him transform that program into a winner and a team of guys that year in and year out expect to win a state championship. I compare him, in that part of the country, to what Art Briles did at Stephenville. They both took over programs that were perennial non-playoff teams, and made them into programs that are as respected as any in the state.”
Liberty Hill enters Friday’s game coming off a 41-0 victory over Manor, its first of the season. The Panthers lost their opener to Giddings, 25-0, and their second game against Abilene Wylie was canceled due to weather.
While this Panther team may not be as strong as others in recent years, Shipley realizes the Lions will still have their hands full.
“Liberty Hill is really young this year, but they still get after it,” Shipley said. “As a coach, it’s fun to watch them on film because they play so hard. Their linemen get after it, and if they miss a block they go to the next level and find somebody else to block. You won’t ever see anybody laying on the field when Liberty Hill is playing. They’re up and working like a bunch of ants to get the job done. They will definitely be a huge challenge for us Friday, one that I hope we can rise to.”
The bulk of the Lions’ injuries will effect the offensive side of the ball, which puts additional pressure on a defense that had played well its first two games. Stephenville, however, gashed the Lion defense for 381 total yards, including 199 on the ground. Through the first three games, Brownwood has allowed an average of 309 total yards — 134 rushing and 175 passing — and 22 points per game.
The key for Brownwood will be slowing down the Liberty Hill slot-T offense, which has attempted just two passes in two games. Against Manor last week, the Panthers piled up 331 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 57 carries. In Liberty Hill’s loss to Giddings, the Panthers finished with just 138 yards rushing on 44 carries.
Sam Foster leads Liberty Hill with 156 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 22 carries, while Tyler Lawhorn has chipped in 146 yards and a touchdown on 40 rushes.
“We’ve obviously got to play great defense,” Shipley said. “Liberty Hill is a team like La Vega that will take a lot of time off the clock. They will run it and run it and throw it maybe once a game just for grins. They’re going to do what they do and challenge you to stop it. There’s no doubt the key to our success and winning the game Friday night will be if our defense can play up to that level and keep it a low scoring game.”
The reins of the Brownwood Lion offense have been turned over to sophomore quarterback Mitch Stephens, who completed 3-of-7 passes for 18 yards and rushed for 22 yards on five carries last week against Stephenville.
Other skill players likely to join Stephens on the field Friday include backs Levi Perez (26-106 rushing; 6-33 receiving), Stehl Ratliff (19-95-2 TDs rushing; 7-85-TD receiving) and Derek Longoria (11-54 rushing), along with receivers/tight ends Cade Johnson (9-99-TD), Vance McShan (4-43), Jesse Coppic (2-13) and Joseph Henry (1-9).
Brownwood finished with 227 yards of total offense against Stephenville, and for the season the Lions are averaging just 16.3 points and 324 total yards — 141.7 rushing and 182.3 passing — per game. Prior to last week, the Lions had not been shut out since dropping their 2005 bi-district playoff game to Everman, 48-0.
“Offensively, we need to find a way to get in the end zone,” Shipley said. “I can’t tell you the last time I’ve been on the sidelines of a team that’s been shut out. With a new quarterback in there and some other new players in there, we have to find a way to get some points on the board. Obviously I was disappointed we had some turnovers last week, our first of the year, but we have to take advantage of every possession we have because Liberty Hill is not going to give you the ball very often.”
Liberty Hill’s defense allowed just 112 yards of total offense on 40 snaps to Manor last week, and forced two turnovers — one of which was returned for a touchdown.
“They like to run man coverage and put as many people in the box as they can,” Shipley said. “They play very aggressive up front. It’s going to be a challenge for us to say the least. With Graylon out that obviously presents another set of challenges for us. It’s going to be a game where we have to be hitting on all eight cylinders for us to have a chance to win.”
While Shipley would love to come away with a victory, perhaps more important is for the Lions to again play with the same fire and passion they showed in the first two games.
“I like to see the same thing every week,” Shipley said. “Obviously I’d like to win the game, but what I’m looking for is the effort of our kids. That’s something I was disappointed in with some of our kids, not all of them, last Friday night. We’ve addressed those issues and challenged them to rise to the occasion. I just want to see 11 guys working their tails off every single play, and playing with a sense of urgency.
“I tell our quarterbacks every throw is a game-winning throw in your mind. I tell our receivers every catch is a game-winning catch. I tell the lineman every block in your mind has to be the game-winning block. Defensively, I tell them every tackle has got to be the game-winning tackle in your mind. That’s the sense of urgency I want to see our team play with, and we have another chance to do that Friday.”