Through their first two games of the season, the Class 4A Division I No. 9 Brownwood Lions had never trailed. In fact, the Lions surrendered a total of three points. But at halftime of its latest showdown with the Class 4A Division II No. 9 Graham Steers, Brownwood was facing a touchdown deficit.
With Graham driving early in the third period to potentially take a two-score advantage, the Lions exhibited the bend but don't break defensive mentality that lifted them to a season-opening win over Brock, along with the explosive capabilities demonstrated in last week's rout of Snyder. And at the end of the night, the Lions had outscored Graham 21-0 over the final two quarters to secure a 28-14 come-from-behind victory and the program's first 3-0 start since 2015.
“They're never willing to quit, they've worked too hard to quit, and they're fighting for each other,” said Lions second-year head coach Sammy Burnett. “Never one time today did they think they were out of the game. Against a worthy opponent they stepped up and believe in each other and found a way to get it done, and that's special. You can do something with a team like that, and that's what I shared with them.”
Knotted at 14 as the fourth quarter began at Gordon Wood Stadium, the Lions (3-0) dodged their second bullet of the half as Graham's Greg Simental missed a 40-yard field goal wide right that would have put the Steers (2-1) back on top.
The Lions took over on their 23 following the miss and their first snap of the fourth period changed the entire complexion of the contest. A.J. McCarty, who caught a team-high five passes for 152 yards, was used as a decoy, and instead quarterback Drew Huff found a streaking Isyah Campos down the left sideline for a 77-yard touchdown completion as the Lions regained the lead, 21-14, with 11:17 left following a Blaize Espinoza PAT.
“We'd been throwing to A.J. so much so we went in motion and he runs a bubble and the corner bit on the bubble which put Isyah wide open because the safety was coming down for A.J.,” Burnett said. “Drew threw a great ball and Isyah finished well.”
Campos, who tallied three grabs for 118 yards, said the touchdown pass was originally designed for Zach Strong on the other side of the field.
“We knew they were going to be aggressive, that's what they do, and the pass was supposed to be to the right,” Campos said. “But I did my job on the opposite side and it was a touchdown.”
In front for the first time since the final minute of the first period, the Lions added an insurance score just 67 seconds later. With Graham facing a third-and-15 from its own 34, quarterback Hunter Lanham's desperation heave was snagged by Strong on a fingertip interception, and the Lions safety followed a convoy of blockers en route to a 59-yard pick six, which staked Brownwood a 28-14 advantage with 10:06 remaining.
“We were pressuring (Lanham) all night and when he scrambled we just had to work over to that side,” Strong said. “We did a great job covering up the other receivers and he just tried to force it. Being 6-5 is pretty helpful so I just went up and got it and tried to make a play with it. Damion Jones, Rowdee Gregory and Theo Bryant, I saw them all in front of me and Theo Bryant laid someone out near the goal line and he's the reason why I scored.”
Burnett said of the game-icing interception, “Zach and I were talking today, we had a little moment, and he said he wanted to have a one interception a game average, and boy was that interception a big one tonight. It changed the momentum for us, put us up by two touchdowns. It was another chance for our defense to step up and help us win ball games and you can win championships with defense like that.”
The Lions forced a turnover for the third consecutive game and stand at plus-8 in turnover margin for the year, while surrendering just 227 total yards. Graham's two touchdown marches in the first half accounted for 146 of it total yards, while the Steers mustered a total 81 yards on their other eight possessions. In the second half, Graham generated just 88 yards. Brownwood also recorded three second-half sacks of Lanham, who was untouched in the first half.
“We knew the quarterback didn't like contact so we had to get in his face and make him make mistakes,” said linebacker Rowdee Gregory.
Leading 14-7 at the break, the Steers appeared to be on the verge of grabbing firm control of the contest early in the second half. Brownwood began its initial drive of third period at its own 6 and punted after reaching only its 20. Graham took over at midfield at advanced to the Brownwood 23. There, the Lions stiffened as a rush for no gain by Brandon Palacios, and three straight incompletions by Lanham ended the Steers' threat.
On the very next play, Huff — who completed 11 of 18 passes for 281 yards — connected with McCarty, who wiggled out of a tackle and raced to the Graham 30 for a 47-yard gain. Huff added a 16-yard scramble a couple of plays later, then scored on a 1-yard dive to knot the score at 14 following an Espinoza extra point with 3:27 left in the third.
Graham's ensuing drive began at its own 25 and moved to the Brownwood 23 before the missed field goal.
Brownwood appeared to pick up where it left off from last week's 70-3 homecoming win over Snyder as the Lions traveled 92 on their first series to grab a 7-0 lead. A third-and-7 pass from Huff to Campos for 34 yards set up a 65-yard Huff to McCarty scoring connection, which followed a holding penalty that created a first-and-20.
“We have a bunch of playmakers on our team and it's such a nice feeling having guys that go out and work every single day to get better at what they do,” Huff said.
The Lions managed just 45 yards and two first downs over their final four possessions of the second half, however, as Graham surged in front, 14-7, before the break.
“We weren't executing in the first half, we weren't able to move the ball the way we wanted to,” Burnett said. “We had passes open, but we weren't protecting to where we could get the ball off and that was frustrating. Then when we had opportunities to make plays we were dropping balls. Defensively we couldn't get off the field on third down. We were doing great, but third down we were giving up big plays.
“We go in at halftime and make adjustments on both sides of the ball, then we came out in the second half and executed a lot better. We took advantage of some opportunities we had, made some big plays and found a way to get off the field on third down. We found a way to win in the second half.”
Behind the line of Bryant, Ethan Pesina, Brad Robinson, Jimi Brown and Tyler Tiner, filling in after Brandon Farrow left with a back injury, the Lions finished with 357 yards of total offense — 281 through the air and 76 on the ground, with 66 of those rushing yards coming in the second half. The Brownwood offense was also turnover-free for the third consecutive outing.
Brownwood faces another gargantuan task next week as its three-game home stand concludes with a visit from Class 5A Division II Wichita Falls Rider (2-1), a state semifinalist last year that defeated Amarillo High, 38-24, Friday night. The Lions knocked off Rider, 20-16, thanks to two late scores on a stormy Thursday night last year in Wichita Falls.
LIONS 28, GRAHAM 14
SCORE BY QUARTER
GRAHAM 7 7 0 0 - 14
BROWNWOOD 7 0 7 14 - 28
B: A.J. McCarty 65 pass from Drew Huff (Blaize Espinoza kick), 8:45, 1st
G: J.J Lee 5 run (Greg Simental kick) 0:20, 1st
G: Mathew Lindquist 9 pass from Hunter Lanham (Simental kick), 4:52, 2nd
B: Drew Huff 1 run (Espinoza kick), 3:27, 3rd
B: Isyah Campos 77 pass from Huff (Espinoza kick), 11:17, 4th
B: Zach Strong 59 interception return (Espinoza kick), 10:06, 4th
First Downs 14 12
Total Offense 227 357
Rushing 25-34 22-76
Passing 193 281
C-A-I 19-32-1 11-18-0
Fumbles Lost 0 0
Penalties 12-90 5-50
Punts 4-41.3 3-35.3
Rushing – G: Daniel Gilbertson 8-34, J.J. Lee 5-16, Brandon Palacios 9-(-3), Hunter Lanham 3-(-13). B: Reece Rodgers 12-45, Drew Huff 10-31.
Passing – G: Lanham 19-32-1-193. B: Huff 11-18-0-281.
Receiving – G: Gilbertson 10-111, Mathew Lindquist 4-40, Trey Overcash 4-37, Lee 1-5. B: A.J. McCarty 5-152, Isyah Campos 3-118, Dane Johnson 1-9, Zach Strong 1-7, Rodgers 1-(-5).