Though the District 2-3A race hasn’t started the way the Brownwood Lions envisioned, the playoffs are still a very real possibility - if the Lions (3-5, 1-2) can eliminate the mistakes that have plagued them throughout the season.
Brownwood’s latest chance to turn around its season comes in Friday’s 7:30 p.m. home finale against the Sweetwater Mustangs (7-1, 3-0), who carry a seven-game win streak into the encounter that has propelled them to the top of the district standings along with No. 8 Abilene Wylie (6-2, 3-0).
Not only are the Lions’ playoff chances still alive, Brownwood could still earn the top Division II seed out of the district - with a little help. In order for that to occur, however, the Lions must first derail the Mustangs.
“Everything still lies ahead of us,” said Lions head coach Steve Freeman. “It’s deceiving how all this works. We took some bumps that we didn’t want to take, but everything is still in front of us right now. That’s why in this business you have to be real careful about the ups and downs of emotions. You have to be steadfast and mature enough to handle the bumps or you get left standing at the station.”
For the Lions to earn the top Division II seed, they must win their final two games, have Sweetwater lose its last two and have Graham (2-6, 1-2) drop at least one. In that scenario, the Lions and Sweetwater would finish tied for second behind Wylie and Brownwood would get the edge due to winning the head-to-head showdown.
A Brownwood victory of at least 11 points Friday would be ideal in case another tiebreaker develops. If the Lions and Graham were to both win their last two games and Sweetwater finished with a pair of losses, the three teams would be tied for second place.
Based on the 2-3A points tiebreaker - with a ceiling of 14 points for a victory - Graham is locked in at +7 (maximum win over Brownwood, seven-point loss to Sweetwater) as it has played both the Lions and Mustangs. Sweetwater also is currently at +7 (seven-point win over Graham), while the Lions are at -14 (maximum loss to Graham). If the Lions defeat Sweetwater by 11 points, Brownwood would improve to -3 and Sweetwater would fall to -4. Graham would then be the top Division II seed, the Lions would be the second Division II seed and the Mustangs would be left out of the playoffs.
Even if the Lions don’t come away with the victory Friday a playoff berth is still possible - as long as Graham falls to Wylie - but the odds would be heavily stacked against Brownwood going into next week’s regular season finale at Snyder (5-3, 1-2).
For Brownwood to realistically reach the postseason, however, it must correct its two biggest areas of concern - defense and turnovers.
In last week’s 59-41 loss at Graham, the Lions allowed their most points and surrendered a season-worst 636 yards of total offense. For the season, Brownwood is allowing 36 points and 432.6 yards per game, while forcing just nine turnovers.
On offense, Brownwood has coughed up the ball 11 times in district games alone, which negates the 527.7 yards of total offense and 41.7 points per game the Lions have generated in those contests as they’ve dropped two of the three. For the season, the Lions have turned the ball over 20 times.
“I can make up a different way to say it, but it’s the same things we have to be able to do,” Freeman said. “That’s create stops defensively and the biggest deal offensively is don’t give the ball up. We just have to push the go button and then go. Nothing in my vocabulary could have possibly changed from what we’ve been talking about the entire season.”
While points have been plentiful in Brownwood’s games this season, they’ve been hard to come by in Sweetwater’s contests.
The Mustangs are averaging 21 points per game, but allow only 12. Just four opponents have reached double figures against the Sweetwater defense, and only one in the last five games. Graham managed 24 points against the Mustangs two weeks ago, which was the most points Sweetwater has allowed all season.
Offensively, the Mustangs have not scored more than 31 points with that coming in the win over Graham. Sweetwater’s average margin of victory is just 11 points per game and the Mustangs have not defeated an opponent by more than 21 points.
“We’re on two opposite ends of the spectrum,” Freeman said. “We’ve been in high-scoring ball games and they’ve been in low-scoring games. You can pretty well count on those teams that don’t give up a lot of points, especially through Week 9, correlates to good defense.
“They’re on a roll right now. They dropped a close game in Week 0 and haven’t looked back. They’re pretty comfortable with what they’re doing and where they are in the district race. They have two heavies (Brownwood and Wylie) left, but they’re still thinking of a district crown. They have a lot to play for, as do we.”
Sweetwater still bases out of the wishbone and will run the ball about as much as Liberty Hill did earlier this season. The Mustangs are averaging 308.5 total yards per game, with 288.3 coming on the ground. Sweetwater has attempted just 39 passes all season, completing 12 for 162 yards and a touchdown.
Daniel Jackson (124-959 yards, 6 TDs) spearheads the Mustangs’ ground game, while other key contributors include Steven Fields (55-384, 3 TDs), Zach Birdwell (77-313, 5 TDs), Rufus McCann (66-313, 4 TDs), and A.J. McCoy (43-231, 3 TDs).
Freeman expects the Mustangs to use their ground game to play keep away from the Lions offense, which could present a problem as the Brownwood defense has allowed 333.5 yards rushing the past two games and 253 yards per game for the season.
“Their mindset is going to be to ball control us, but they’re not a heavy throw team anyway,” Freeman said. “Their run offense has been a good place for them to hang their hats and it’s surely not a secret right now the success people have had against us running the ball. There’s not any doubt that’s their intent. The best defense they could provide would be keeping the ball in their hands and not ours.”
Another question for the Lions is which version of the Jekell and Hyde offense displayed last week will surface Friday night. After scoring on six of their first seven possessions and putting 41 points on the board in the first half, the Lions ended the game with six consecutive turnovers - including four in the red zone.
“We’ve got as dangerous an offense as there is anywhere that can be as quick hit as there is anywhere, but you don’t get points for crossing the 20,” Freeman said. “I heard I don’t know how many times about how we crossed the 20 a week ago, but we came up empty. There’s no prize for crossing the 20.”
Quarterback Casey Pachall is coming off his roughest outing of the season, but still has completed 134-of-217 passes for 2,283 yards with 27 TDs and 10 interceptions. Pachall also continues to lead the Lions with 514 yards on the ground and seven TDs.
Pachall will have his full complement of receivers at his disposal again this week as Shelby Miller (34-630, 6 TDs) is back after taking part in the Major League Baseball draft combine in Florida last weekend and earlier this week.
Parker Taylor (43-870, 11 TDs) continues to be Pachall’s favorite target while Travis Holleman (26-435, 8 TDs) is coming off his biggest game of the season.
The same can be said for running back Rashad Deal (59-369, 5 TDs), who rushed for a season-high 110 yards and three touchdowns against Graham.
With Sweetwater’s offense being so dependent on the run, if the Lions could create an early cushion on the scoreboard and force the Mustangs to pass to get back in the game, it could set the table for a big night for Brownwood’s defense.
“Sweetwater’s character is not to be a catch-up team,” Freeman said. “Any margin we can create is surely a plus for us. Our offense has to take care of the football and put it in the end zone.
“But our biggest key is to create however many stops it takes. You’d like to say every time, but right now we need to create as many stops as it takes.”