Brownwood has not recorded back-to-back victories since kicking off the 2007 campaign with four straight wins, but the Lions have the opportunity to start the Bob Shipley era with a 2-0 mark if they are able to upend the La Vega Pirates Friday night in Waco.
The Lions (1-0), coming off a thrilling come-from-behind 27-24 victory over Burnet, will visit a La Vega (1-0) squad that devoured Class 2A Marlin, 47-0, in the Pirates’ opener.
Prior to the season, Shipley stated the three-week stretch of pre-district games the Lions are now facing — at La Vega, at Class 4A Stephenville and home against Liberty Hill — was as tough as any in Class 3A football. But the Lions are hoping to build on the momentum of last week’s late offensive rally, and crucial closing defensive stand.
“No doubt it’s a going to be a very challenging game for us,” Shipley said. “In pre-district, obviously we want to win all our games, and this would be huge for our program to go down to La Vega and steal a win from them and give us more momentum going into the Stephenville game. But our season won’t hinge on one game, win or lose.”
Last season, unfortunately, the La Vega game did dictate the rest of the Lions’ season. Tied at 14 at halftime, the Pirates came out with a punishing, clock-chewing ground attack that led to 17 points, while limiting the Lions to 13 plays, 29 total yards, one first down and a second-half time of possession of just 2:58. The Lions’ opponents copied that formula throughout the rest of the season, which opened the flood gates on Brownwood’s defensive woes.
That was last year, though.
In Friday’s season opener against Burnet, the Lions yielded just 34 yards rushing on 22 carries — which included four quarterback sacks — and 319 total yards.
“Our guys did a good job stopping the run, and that’s always going to be our main goal defensively,” Shipley said. “Zac Green at middle linebacker played well for us, and Jorge De La Paz, along with Joseph Henry, Levi Westerman and the rest of the defensive line, played well.”
While Burnet made its living with a variety of screen passes, La Vega will provide the Lions defensive front with a much tougher test as the Pirates are again pounding the ball behind their brick wall of an offensive line this season.
“We’re not blessed with an incredible amount of size on our defensive front, and they are blessed with a lot of size up front offensively,” Shipley said. “We’re going to try and mix up what we’re doing defensively and try and get our guys to be aggressive and beat them off the line of scrimmage. We have to have guys in the right positions to make plays.
“When they line up to go toe-to-toe with two tight ends, sometimes when they come off the ball it’s like a tidal wave. Obviously that’s a concern to us. We have to have our shoulder pads at a low level. We can’t play high because if we do, they’ll roll right over us.”
Though the Pirates return just two offensive starters from last season’s 3A Division I state finalist squad, La Vega may be more explosive on offense this season.
Quarterback Devin McGowan is the spark plug for the offense as he rushed for a 15-yard touchdown, completed 6-of-10 passes for 55 yards and also returned a punt 52 yards for a score against Marlin. Arron Brandon chipped in a team-high 104 yards rushing, including a 69-yard scoring sprint, while Tyrell Irby rushed for a pair of second-half touchdowns.
“Their quarterback is as good a runner as we’ll see at the position,” Shipley said. “Offensively they’ll come up with the two tight ends and try and go toe-to-toe like they did last year and pound you. But if they get behind, then they’ll get in more of a spread offense, which obviously we would much rather see them in because it means we’re ahead.
“We can’t allow them to have long scoring drives. We have to make some stops defensively, but that’s been difficult for teams to do from watching their two scrimmages and their first game. It’s something nobody has done yet.”
The La Vega defense, meanwhile, was equally as impressive last week, holding Marlin to 72 yards rushing while recording 11 tackles for loss.
“They’re returning four starters on defense, and I couldn’t tell you which ones they are looking at the film because they are just athletic everywhere,” Shipley said. “You’re not going to outrun them from sideline to sideline, so we have to be patient, stay within our philosophy and game plan and hope things work out for us.”
Brownwood’s offense — which compiled 386 total yards officially — hit its stride in the second half, and Shipley hopes the Lions can wear down the much larger Pirates as they did Burnet a week ago.
“That’s what we thought would happen, because our whole offensive scheme and plan is to wear down our opponents with a fast-paced offense,” said Shipley, whose offensive unit took 67 snaps last week. “We only had nine points at halftime, but we had some opportunities. We told the kids at halftime the way our offense is set up, we don’t have to worry too much about the second half because we’ll begin to see the opponents wear down and we’ll be stronger because our kids have been conditioning themselves.”
While Shipley wants the Lions strong in the second half, he would also prefer a faster start offensively, especially this week as the La Vega offense is known for playing keep away from the opposition.
“I want to start strong and finish strong,” Shipley said. “I’m not happy with the lack of point production in the first half, but it was the first game and our quarterback’s first start ever on varsity at quarterback. He was not as consistent as we wanted him to be or he wanted to be in the first half, but he settled down in the second half and got into a little groove. We hope to come out strong every game.
“We have to be real efficient offensively this week. With a ball controlled offense like they run, we might not get many possessions, so when we do have possession we have to be smart and try and score every time we can.”
Graylon Brown, in his varsity debut behind center, completed 20-of-33 passes for 235 yards with one touchdown, while adding a team-high 64 rushing yards and another score on 16 carries. Levi Perez and Stehl Ratliff each chipped in 40 yards rushing, while Dillon Ellis caught five passes for 99 yards and Perez finished with five catches for 30 yards. Cade Johnson tallied four receptions for 44 yards and a touchdown, while Ratliff — who ran 13 yards for the game-winning touchdown — caught three passes covering 42 yards.
Despite all the new faces at the skill positions, and a new offensive system, the Lions did not turn the ball over against Burnet, which will be another key against La Vega.
“It’s always very important to be able to force a turnover, and we didn’t give up any,” said Shipley, whose team earned the lone takeaway against Burnet. “I was happy with the way our backs protected the ball, but we still have to make some better decisions at quarterback. I thought there was a play or two where there could have been an interception. We have to continue to make good decisions.”
The Lions did suffer a couple of problems in the kicking game as a poor snap on a punt resulted in a swing of field position and a Burnet touchdown. Brownwood also botched one extra-point attempt, but the Lions have focused on both areas this week in practice.
“Obviously there’s some things in the kicking game we need to improve on, and we’ve taken steps to do that,” Shipley said. “We also had some busted assignments on offense and coverages on defense, and again those are things we will correct as we go along.”