The Brownwood Lions’ undefeated start to the season has featured several highlights, from dominating defensive efforts and bone-crunching hits to game-winning, come-from-behind offensive drives. But the most impressive performance thus far could be in store Friday night — with a victory over the archrival Stephenville Yellow Jackets.
“The Battle of 377” resumes at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Tarleton Memorial Stadium, and though the stakes in the rivalry are not what they once were, first-year Brownwood head coach Bob Shipley is eager to be a part of this storied showdown.
“Since they’re not in the same district and Brownwood has moved down a classification, the game doesn’t hold the same significance in terms of playoff implications and district championships,” Shipley said. “But I don’t think there’s that much water that’s passed under the bridge. It’s a game I’m really excited about being a part of, and the kids seem to have an extra zip in their step this week.”
Brownwood is looking to reverse a recent trend in the series, which has been dominated by the Yellow Jackets since 1990. After stringing together 22 consecutive victories from 1964-87, the Lions have won just four of the last 16 meetings. Stephenville has captured the last three contests, including last year’s 31-28 classic when the rivalry resumed after a two-year hiatus. Brownwood’s last victory occurred in 2003.
Despite the history between the two programs, Shipley wants the Lions to focus on the task at hand, and not so much who it is they are facing Friday night.
“I don’t want us to get too caught up in it being the Brownwood-Stephenville game,” Shipley said. “We need to go over and play football and let the fans have all the fun with the rivalry. It’s a football game and we expect the kids to play hard every single game. I would think there’s a little added incentive this week, though, and I don’t know how the kids are going to respond to it.”
Stephenville has started the season 0-2 for the second year in a row, an occurrence that prior to the 2008 campaign had not happened since 1989. But the Yellow Jackets have also faced a daunting schedule with a narrow 20-16 loss to Aledo and a 45-14 setback to Class 4A No. 3 Denton Guyer.
“We’ve got a tremendous task ahead of us Friday night, their record is irrelevant,” Shipley said. “Burnet and La Vega were quality opponents, but I don’t think you could say they’re as good as Denton Guyer and Aledo. There’s a good chance if Stephenville is playing our schedule they’re 2-0. I know that’s what they’re thinking and they’re justifiably correct. We’ve played two good 3A schools and they’ve played two really good 4A schools. Records will have nothing to do with predicting the outcome of this game.”
The story of the season, thus far, for the Lions has been the reemergence of the defense, which will face its greatest challenge to date Friday. Brownwood is allowing just 273 yards and 15.5 points per game, but has not faced an offense as balanced as Stephenville.
“I’m real pleased with the defense, but we’re not perfect and we’re not where we want to be yet,” Shipley said. “The main thing is the kids are playing real hard for us for four full quarters. That’s what’s exciting to me. They’re playing aggressive and making stops when we need to.”
Run-heavy La Vega mustered just 224 yards of total offense last week, with 190 coming on the ground, while pass-happy Burnet finished with 319 yards in the opener, and 285 came through the air. Stephenville, however, excels in both areas.
“They take advantage of whatever you give them,” Shipley said. “They like to throw the screens like Burnet, and that’s something we’ve been working on, but they’ll also throw it down the field. They’re also going to run the ball with the big guys they have, and I don’t blame them. I think they’re going to try and keep possession and pound you with the big guys, then hit you with the quick screens and a take a shot down the field every once in a while. It’s a very versatile offense. You can’t just focus on one particular thing to try and stop them.”
Stephenville boasts not only size, but an impressive collection of talent at the skill positions. Sophomore quarterback Connor Washington has completed 32-of-60 passes for 410 yards with three touchdowns and one interception in his first two varsity starts. Charlie Riola (11-148-TD) and Cole Stokes (10-126-TD) lead the receiving corps, while James Myles (32-126-TD rushing, 3-79-TD receiving) is the Yellow Jackets’ primary threat out of the backfield.
“They have a lot of weapons on offense, and that’s something we’re very concerned about,” Shipley said. “Connor Washington has done a really good job for them and throws a really good ball. He’s not as much of a running threat maybe as Stephenville has had in the past, but he’s only going to get better with time.
“They’re really big up front, and with their backs and receivers, and that gives them a lot of options offensively. James Myles is about 6-3, 210 lbs. at running back, and Cole Stokes is a 6-2 receiver.”
Stephenville is averaging 295.5 total yards per game and has lost the ball just twice. Brownwood, meanwhile, has caused a pair of turnovers — both fumbles recovered by linebacker Caden Ellis.
“We’re going to have to be able to control Stephenville’s offense,” Shipley said. “They’ve got the speed, and the quarterback with an arm, to be able to score from anywhere on the field. Our defense is going to have to rise to the occasion again. They definitely don’t have any weeks off.”
On the other side of the ball, the Stephenville defense — led by Holton Westbrook (28 tackles), Aiavion Edwards (26 tackles) and Reilly Avalos (21 tackles) — has given up an average of 437.5 total yards per game, including 558 last week against Guyer. But the Lion offense has battled through bouts of inconsistency despite averaging 25.5 points and 372.5 points per game.
“We had some guys beat up, Luke Chastain didn’t play a whole lot after he hurt his leg a little bit, but obviously we didn’t play as consistently as we wanted to last week,” said Shipley of the offense, which produced 359 total yards against La Vega. “You can attribute some of that to a really good La Vega defense, but to me it’s also a warning signal that we’ve got to become more consistent on offense.”
Quarterback Graylon Brown has completed 38-of-67 passes for 462 yards with a pair of touchdowns, while rushing for 118 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 24 carries through two games.
Stehl Ratliff leads all running backs with 99 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries, while Levi Perez has chipped in 52 yards on 12 carries.
Through the air, Dillon Ellis leads all receivers with nine receptions for 161 yards; Ratliff has added seven catches for 85 yards and a touchdown; Cade Johnson has six receptions for 57 yards with a score; and Chastain has grabbed five passes covering 64 yards.
The Lions have yet to turn the ball over this season, while Stephenville hasn’t created a takeaway in two games.
“We need to keep up our streak offensively of not turning the ball over,” Shipley said. “I’m real proud of that, and it’s a credit to our guys to be able to take care of the ball like they have. But we’ve got to take advantage of every possession this week and try and get points on every drive. That’s the goal.”
If the game comes down to the wire, special teams could play a huge role. While Dillon Ellis has made all three of his field goal attempts, the Lions have botched three extra-point tries in two games — including two at La Vega.
“There are a lot of situations where an extra point or two can cost you a game, so we have a lot of concerns about that,” Shipley said. “If we ever get the kick off we’re actually pretty good at it, but we’ve had some problems with the snaps and holds. We’ve worked on it really hard this week.”
Another area of concern for the Lions is kick coverage, which has not been as sharp as Shipley would like.
“It may look like we got down there and covered really good, but when we went back and looked at the film we noticed some problems,” Shipley said. “We were lucky they didn’t hit a big gap here or there. Our special teams is something we’ll continue to work on the whole season. It’s a long process, and through injuries and other things, personnel is changing all the time.”