Injuries? What injuries?
The Brownwood Lions looked like anything but a team missing six starters Friday night as they rebounded from their first loss of the season with a 34-17 victory over the Liberty Hill Panthers at Gordon Wood Stadium.
The game was not nearly as competitive as the final score and statistics indicate as Brownwood raced out to a 27-3 halftime lead and carried a 34-3 cushion into the fourth period.
“I was really proud of the way the kids responded,” said Lions first-year head coach Bob Shipley, whose team fell, 35-0, at Stephenville last week. “We had great effort tonight, but we have to have great effort against great football teams. Certainly Liberty Hill was a good team, but they weren’t Stephenville. We’ll have opportunities the next few weeks to have great efforts against great teams. That’s what great football teams do.”
Coming off a defensive effort against Stephenville in which the Brownwood (3-1) defense allowed a season-high 381 yards, the Lions limited Liberty Hill (1-2) to 75 of its 261 rushing yards — and 310 total yards — in the first half. Brownwood also forced three turnovers as Derek Longoria returned both an interception and a fumble for touchdowns.
“Our defense has been pretty good, but we changed it up quite a bit tonight,” Longoria said. “They had me playing 10 yards in front of the center, watching the offset backs. Our weak side safety was lined up on the tight end, and if the slot went in motion he went with him. We just had the perfect set up.”
Added Shipley, “Overall it was a great effort by our defense. They continued to come up with big stops and turnovers. We had two interceptions and a fumble recovery and two of those turned into touchdowns for us. We got a little bit tired at the end, but Liberty Hill had the ball almost the whole second half. Our guys played an awful lot of snaps.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the Lions racked up 298 of their 338 total yards in the opening half. Quarterback Mitch Stephens, in his first varsity start, completed 5-of-10 passes for 169 yards with a touchdown. Dillon Ellis grabbed three catches for 89 yards and a touchdown, while Vance McShan hauled in two receptions for 80 yards.
The ground game also finished with 169 yards, as Stehl Ratliff rushed for a team-high 73 yards and a score, followed by 57 yards from Levi Perez and 40 yards and a touchdown from Longoria.
“I was real proud of the way Mitch came out and had great composure and led our football team to 20 first-half points offensively,” Shipley said. “He didn’t play the way he wanted to in the second half, he told me that, but he’s just going to continue to get better.
“Our running game, we ran some unbalanced stuff early they weren’t adjusting to and the line did a good job. Not only did the line do a great job of blocking, but we also had great blocking on the perimeter with our backs and receivers. Stehl, Derek and Levi did a great job running the ball tonight. We’ve got a lot of good running backs and when we give them a crease they can do something with it.”
The Brownwood offense wasted little time in showing it could operate just fine with new faces in the lineup. Against a Liberty Hill defense that surrendered just 112 yards in a 41-0 win over Manor last week, the Lions marched 68 yards in six plays on their first possession before Longoria scored on a 7-yard run just 1:48 into the contest.
The key play of the drive was a 37-yard toss from Stephens to Ellis on the second snap of the game, which moved the ball to the Liberty Hill 32.
“That first pass really got me energized and ready to go and it just went from there,” said Stephens, who threw for 115 yards in the first quarter alone. Leading 7-0, Brownwood’s next drive started at its own 10, and passes of 54 and 26 yards to McShan moved the ball to the Liberty Hill 8, but the Lions could not convert a 31-yard field goal attempt. Brownwood also narrowly missed a 48-yard field goal attempt on its first possession of the second half.
Brownwood was back on the board on its third possession of the game, however, as the Lions traveled 66 yards in just four plays as Stephens hooked up with Ellis on a 54-yard catch and run to make the score 13-0 with 10:46 left in the first half.
“The first half I thought the offense performed well and I performed well,” Stephens said. “I didn’t expect this much success, but I’m glad I had it.”
Liberty Hill got on the scoreboard at the 8:18 mark of the second period on a 32-yard field goal by Spencer Stratton.
But Brownwood was able to extend its lead to 20-3 with 4:04 left in the half on a 23-yard sprint by Ratliff. The four-play, 40-yard drive was set up by an 11-yard punt return by Cade Johnson following a Liberty Hill punt of just 31 yards.
With 1:33 left before halftime, the Lions scored their first defensive touchdown as Longoria picked off a floater by Liberty Hill quarterback Blake Thompson — who had attempted just two passes all season — and raced 67 yards to boost the lead to 27-3 at halftime.
“I just happened to see the tight end come out for the pass and I jumped up in the air,” Longoria said. “It felt good when I caught it because I saw everybody making blocks and I knew I was going to take it to the house.”
The Lions’ lone points in the second half also came from Longoria, who scooped up a Thompson fumble after a 15-yard scamper and galloped 77 yards to push Brownwood’s lead to 34-3 with 4:22 left in the third quarter.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Longoria said. “I saw the ball bounce and I just happened to be able to scoop it up and I just took off.”
Liberty Hill controlled the time of possession throughout the rest of the game as the Lions took just 13 snaps after halftime. The Panthers tallied a pair of short touchdowns on runs of 1 and 2 yards by Thompson in the fourth period to make the final score more respectable.
The Lions will have their bye next week, then return to action on Oct. 2 at Manor, which fell to Burnet, 41-0, Friday night. Brownwood is expected to have most of its starters back in uniform following the bye week as the District 2-3A opener against No. 5 Abilene Wylie looms on Oct. 9.
“This win was very important for us,” Longoria said. “It makes us feel better and it boosts our confidence back up.”