Brownwood head coach Steve Freeman often refers to the district schedule as the “money games” and both the Lions and No. 7 Abilene Wylie Bulldogs will ante up in Friday’s 7:30 p.m. District 2-3A opener at Bulldog Stadium.
In what is expected to be one of the most competitive 3A districts in the state, the tilt between the Lions (2-3) and Wylie (3-2) highlights the opening weekend schedule. Friday’s other district matchups include Sweetwater (4-1) at Breckenridge (1-4) and Graham (1-4) at Snyder (4-1).
“This game can surely have implications for a district title, but that doesn’t mean by any means the race is complete when the game is over,” Freeman said. “It’s no hidden fact that this ball game is one of several key ball games throughout the entire district schedule for all the district members. This will give a portion of the final equation that’s still left out there. To this point, you would think the district title would for sure go through these teams, but regardless of whether it’s us or Wylie, there’s still work to do week in and week out.”
The Lions are more familiar with Wylie than any other team in District 2-3A. After several years of scrimmaging against the Bulldogs, Wylie was added to the Lions’ regular season schedule in 2006 and was the opening opponent two straight years. While Brownwood posted a 2-0 record (18-14 win in 2006 and 28-21 victory last year) in that span, facing Wylie deeper into the season is expected to be a considerably tougher core.
“Whether it’s the team or the time we’re playing them, team-wise it’s a better football team,” Freeman said. “We’re playing them in game six and not game one, and I’ve always thought Wylie was a progressive team from the beginning of the season to the end. They’ve been deep in the playoffs a lot of years, the last one being last year’s trip to the state semifinals.”
On paper and based on recent head-to-head matchups, the Bulldogs and Lions appear to be evenly matched, and this year’s early season results would back up that claim.
Wylie carries a two-game win streak into Friday’s contest, with one of the victories coming over No. 5 La Vega (22-20), which ran away from the Lions for a 31-14 victory in the second game of the season. Brownwood and La Vega were tied at 14 at halftime.
Both teams had similar results against No. 1 Liberty Hill as Wylie came up short 28-25 at home, while the Lions just missed the upset in a 56-49 slugfest. The Bulldogs’ other loss came at the hands of 4A Wolfforth Frenship, 26-21, while the Lions were toppled by 4A Stephenville, 31-28.
Brownwood also is riding a wave of positive momentum into Friday’s district opener as the Lions snapped a three-game slide with last week’s 50-30 victory over Class 4A Manor.
Tied at 22 at halftime, the Lions dominated the second half behind a 28-0 run in the third period. Brownwood’s offense scored four touchdowns with an average starting field position at the Manor 37, thanks to a pair of turnovers forced by the Lion defense.
“The third quarter was as complete as we’ve been this season,” Freeman said. “For the big picture, it was great. We put it to rest in the third quarter in almost a demanding way, and that’s something we haven’t been able to achieve in the first half of the season.”
While the Lion offense has been able to score at will most of the season, Brownwood’s defense has had trouble slowing down the opposition.
Offensively, the Lions average 35.2 points, 398.8 total yards, 259.2 passing yards and 139.6 rushing yards per contest. Quarterback Casey Pachall has already doubled his touchdown total from last season, throwing 18 with just four interceptions in 125 attempts. Pachall also has completed 79 passes for 1,272 yards and serves as the leading rusher with 343 yards and three scores on 59 carries.
Receiving weapons at Pachall’s disposal include Shelby Miller (25-455, 4 TDs), Parker Taylor (23-427, 8 TDs), Travis Holleman (11-213, 4 TDs) and Rashad Deal 6-96, TD).
“The kids are very comfortable in our throw game and Casey’s maturity is allowing that to be a good portion of that success,” Freeman said. “Our receiving group has obviously progressed miles since a year ago. Up front, our line guys have bent some, but they’ve given decent protection along the way. I don’t know that we’ve gone more than two weeks straight with the same people in the same positions. We’ve had some injuries, but on the flip side we have some guys that were inexperienced gaining experience, and we’ve still found ways to be effective.
“It’s a three-part process - you protect, you throw and you catch. Without either of those pieces, the throwing game is no good.”
Brownwood has used the pass to open up the run game, and four Lions have found the end zone on the ground - Deal (35-149), Tyler Harth (8-99), Derek Longoria (5-44) and Levi Perez (16-43).
“Through formation offense we’ve been able to find some ways to keep people honest in the run game,” Freeman said. “The quarterback exposure in our run game has always been a big part of our offense. We’re also gradually finding ways to get new faces involved at the running back position. Hopefully we’ll get a little more consistent going north and south with the football. We haven’t been a line up and pound somebody team, and that probably won’t change.”
The Lions will be facing a Wylie defense that surrenders just 20.2 points, 300.2 total yards, 201 rushing yards and 99.2 passing yards per game. The Bulldogs also have forced 15 turnovers, an average of three per game.
“Defensively they’ve always got good people inside and they surround them with good people who can run to the football. They’re no different now than they have been,” Freeman said. “There’s reasons why Wylie is always represented well at the 3A portion of the state track meet. They didn’t win tickets there. They can run.”
The key to victory could rest with the Brownwood defense and its ability to slow down Wylie’s offense. The eight points the Lions allowed in the second half to Manor was its best effort since giving up three points in the first two quarters to Burnet during the season opener. Brownwood also forced a season-high three turnovers last week.
Still, for the season the Lions yield 34.4 points, 427.8 total yards, 206.8 passing yards and 221 rushing yards per outing.
Linebacker Tracer Skelton leads Brownwood with 70 tackles, an interception and and a fumble recovery, while safety Payton Ragsdale has chipped in 61 tackles. Linebacker Joseph Bates is next in line with 42 takedowns and two sacks.
Wylie, meanwhile, has racked up 23.4 points, 314.6 total yards, 174 rushing yards and 104.6 passing yards per game.
Quarterback Matt Preston (54-105, 620 yards, 8 TDs, 8 INTs passing; 18-99 rushing) spearheads the Wylie offense, while leading rushers include Kris Gilmore (56-359, 3 TDs), Cory Ramos (29-144) and Jon Miller (10-126).
Eleven different Bulldogs have caught passes, but no player has more than six receptions for the season. Ramos (6-102, TD) and Brad Turner (6-90) lead the pack, followed by Austin Gray (5-87, 2 TDs), Matt Field (5-46) and Michael Seidensticker (4-31, TD).
“They’ve got a system and they’ll tweak it year in and year out, but they have certain things they hang their hat on that’s their bread and butter, just as we do,” Freeman said. “They can run the football and I don’t have any doubt they will test us with their interior run game. They have good play-action schemes off their run game and they still have a flavor of a pro-style throw game. It will be real similar to the stuff that we’ve seen, but there are some years you do certain things better than you did in other years. I think they’re pretty thorough right now.”
For the Lions, they are attempting to capture their 27th district championship and first since the 2003 campaign. While a win Friday isn’t necessarily a must to achieve that goal, the Lions would prefer to start the 2-3A race on the right foot.
“In any district opener, you want to be in the win column when it’s said and done,” Freeman said.