The No. 9 Brownwood Lions have plenty of reasons to feel confident following their first two victories of the season. Now they face the challenge of continuing their high level of play as they hit the road for their toughest test to date.
The Lions (2-0) will tangle with the Burnet Bulldogs (1-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Bulldog Stadium in a rematch of last year’s 40-22 victory for the Bulldogs in the Gordon Wood Classic.
Brownwood is coming off convincing victories of 28-21 over Abilene Wylie and 55-7 over Sweetwater, both members of District 7-3A. Burnet opened the season with a 58-12 win over Class 4A Taylor, then saw a 10-point halftime lead vanish in a 34-17 loss to defending Class 3A Division I state champion Liberty Hill.
“Their mentality of getting up early on, then letting it slip away is something they are probably really working against right now,” said Brownwood head coach Steve Freeman of the Bulldogs. “That can be a two-way street. It can work for you if you handle it properly as a staff and a team. It can really propel you from that point on, or not. We expect they’ll have their ducks in a row. We’ll get the full meal deal from Burnet Friday. I don’t have any doubt.”
While the Bulldogs took a step backward in second half of their second game of the season, the Lions improved in virtually every aspect as they crushed Sweetwater.
Defensively, Brownwood forced five turnovers, did not allow a first down until the 5:05 mark of the third period and surrendered just 30 of the Mustangs’ 173 total yards during the first three quarters.
Junior safety Kenny Vaccaro recovered three fumbles while senior middle linebacker Jordan Longoria and senior cornerback Jason Maldonado each intercepted a pass. Senior outside linebacker Mitchell Tharp tallied a team-high 11 tackles, including a sack, while senior defensive tackle Justin Ragsdale chipped in nine tackles.
For the season, Tharp leads the Lions with 19 tackles, followed by 16 from senior defensive end David Fisher, 15 from Ragsdale, 14 from senior defensive tackle Grady Staton and 13 from Vaccaro.
“I’d love to see a repeat defensively,” Freeman said. “If we could bottle that up right now and be guaranteed that for the next 14 games, then we’re in business. It was a strong confidence builder for us and a dominant performance. We need to continue with that intensity and the constant attempt of trying to be mistake-free.”
The 55 points scored by the Lions offense were the second-most since 2002 — trailing only last year’s 60 in the memorable regular season finale against Midway — and marked the fourth time in the last seven games Brownwood had eclipsed the 40-point plateau.
Junior quarterback Casey Pachall threw a career-high four touchdown passes to four different receivers and finished 11-of-18 for 163 yards. Through two games, Pachall is 21-of-35 for 323 yards with five touchdowns.
Junior wide out Parker Taylor has been the Lions’ top receiving threat with seven catches for 102 yards and a touchdown, followed by senior running back Corey Burr, who has six catches for 74 yards and a score out of the backfield.
The Lions’ ground game averaged 9.2 yards per carry and finished with 268 yards against Sweetwater, led by Burr’s 94 yards and three touchdowns. Burr’s 174 yards rushing trails only Pachall’s 227, while his five rushing touchdowns are a team-high.
Brownwood did turn the ball over three times last week, however, and Pachall was also sacked three times.
“We’ve covered a lot of ground in our ball games offensively,” Freeman said. “Our intent is to be real broad. We want to be effective, but broad where we can spread it, throw it, and run it effectively. We know that will be essential in 16-4A action down the road.
“Against Burnet, I’d like to see just an increased continuity in where we are in the course of a possession or a drive. Probably close to the the top of the list would also be correcting the protection botches that we’ve had. One of those led to a turnover this past week.”
Freeman cited Burnet’s athleticism as the main reason he feels the Bulldogs will provide the Lions with their stiffest competition of the young season.
“They have more completeness and athleticism than what we’ve seen so far,” Freeman said. “And any time you use that term athleticism, you’re including the word speed.
“Their big guys are athletic, they have a pretty well-rounded group of skill guys that are athletic. Their linebacker crew, which also has some guys that will play on the offensive side as skills guys, is athletic. Team speed will definitely be a factor for us with Burnet.”
The Bulldog offense is led by quarterback Kyle Brunson, who threw scoring tosses of 31 and 6 yards to Jake Meyer in the Liberty Hill game. Meyer, the Bulldogs’ top receiver, led Burnet with 32 catches for 571 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago.
Against Taylor, Brunson rushed for a 40-yard touchdown and threw a pair of scoring tosses, including one to Meyer, in limited action.
Burnet’s ground game is led by Darius Nesby, who rushed for 509 yards and six touchdowns in 2006. Nesby scored a receiving and a rushing touchdown against Taylor, but was kept out of the end zone by Liberty Hill.
Through its first six quarters, the Burnet defense yielded just 19 points. But in Liberty’s Hill first four possessions of the second half last week, it accumulated 27 points. The Bulldogs allowed a one-play scoring drive and also permitted Liberty Hill to recover an onside kick, which wrestled the momentum away from Burnet.
If the game comes down to the wire, special teams could be a crucial factor. The Lions had their ups and downs last week, fumbling the opening kickoff and having a pair of extra-point attempts blocked. But Brownwood also pinned Sweetwater deep in its own territory with booming kickoffs from Jarrod Howey, and scored a two-point conversion out of an extra-point formation.
Burnet counters with a kicking game led by Ross Evans, who nailed 15-of-18 field goals last year and has hit all 13 of his kicks — including a pair of field goals, one covering 53 yards — in 2007.
“In ball games we’ll be faced with down the road the kicking game circumstances we faced the other night would weigh more,” Freeman said. “It was a negative factor on the opening kickoff and it was a plus factor later on in the game when we took advantage on a point-after attempt.
“We also had a couple of botches in the same phase on point-after attempts that were just silly. You don’t make mistakes in protection in those phases of the game. Those factors are irritating, but very correctable. We may have a lot of things to worry about, but that element does not need to be one of those things.”
LION FOOTBALL — No. 9 Brownwood (2-0) at Burnet (1-1), 7:30 p.m. Friday — Bulldog Stadium.
2006 Result: Burnet 40, Brownwood 22