Coming off their first loss of the season, the Class 4A Division I No. 6 Brownwood Lions (8-1, 2-1) are looking to rebound, secure the second playoff seed from District 5 and avoid a similar performance to what occurred against the China Spring Cougars (3-6, 1-2) in last year's regular season finale.
A win wasn't required, just a loss by 10 points or less would have allowed the Lions to be the third seed from the district for the playoffs in 2018, and avoid powerhouse Kennedale in the opening round of the playoffs. Brownwood opened a 34-16 advantage and appeared headed for a bi-district battle with Benbrook, but China Spring stormed back with the final 31 points of the game to not only hand the Lions a 47-34 loss, but bump them into the fourth seed and eventual first-round playoff exit.
“I still have a bad taste about that one,” said Lions second-year head coach Sammy Burnett. “That was a game we had won and let slip through our hands and it sort of works that way from time to time. I would like to avenge that. I felt we had a good opportunity to advance to the second round but we didn't take care of our business. We're going to try and go over to their house this Friday and do that.”
The scenario for Friday's 7 p.m. regular season finale at China Spring is very reminiscent of last year. If the Lions win, the No. 2 playoff seed is secure. Even if Brownwood falls, a loss by 13 points or less still wraps up the runner-up spot. But should China Spring notch a victory of 14 points or more, then the Lions, Cougars and Stephenville finish in a three-way tie for second, and a series of coin flips would determine the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 playoff seeds from 5-4A.
Prior to last week's 31-14 setback against top-ranked La Vega, the Lions had answered every challenge placed before them in 2019. But Burnett also knows China Spring won't be a pushover despite an underwhelming overall record.
“We're facing a strong China Spring team,” Burnett said. “Their record doesn't show it but they've lost a lot of games by one or two points against very worthy opponents.”
The Cougars opened the season with consecutive wins over Lorena and Addison Trinity and cracked the Harris Weekly Ratings Top 10. Five straight losses followed, with the first four being by a total of 12 points including three defeats by two points or less (Argyle Christian, 58-56; Waco Connally, 21-20; and Houston St. Thomas, 14-13).
In district action, China Spring was blanked by Stephenville (21-0) in the league opener and has fallen to La Vega (49-17), with its lone victory coming against winless Gatesville (52-13). In the Cougars' district win, they produced 584 yards of total offense, including 436 rushing.
Though China Spring yields 29 points per game on average, the offense is still producing
31 points per outing.
“They're a lot different than the La Vega offense we saw last week,” Burnett said. “La Vega is simple in what they do but extremely good at what they do. China Spring does so much stuff offensively, they do everything they can to get you confused — from motions to different formations to different personnel. They're trying to confuse you as much as anything else and beat you by alignment and then execute that way.”
K.J. Peoples leads the charge for China Spring and could line up at a multitude of positions.
“He gets a lot of touches in a lot of different ways,” Burnett said. “He's a kid that will play quarterback for them and when he's in there it's like a wildcat, a lot of running, he's a very good athlete. They'll also put him at a slot receiver, they'll put him at a wide out to try and single him up on somebody. They do everything they can to get the ball in his hands. He also plays cornerback on defense, so he's probably their strongest player.”
Other key offensive weapons for China Spring are Brayden Faulkner, the sophomore quarterback who led the Cougars past Brownwood last year, and receiver Major Bowden, who was the quarterback on the Lions' freshman team last year prior to his father, Brad, accepting an assistant coaching position at China Spring.
Though the Lions have surrendered 53 of their 85 points allowed for the season over the last two games, Brownwood's defense is still giving up just 9 points and 225 yards — 118 rushing and 107 passing — per game on average. The Lions have notched 15 takeaways and four defensive touchdowns, but have created just one turnover the last two games.
Standouts on the unit include Rowdee Gregory (75 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT), Cooper Swanzy (71 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 FR), Kris Hobbs (65 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 FRs), Khyren Deal (64 tackles, 0.5 TFL), Ezequiel Ibarra (55 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3.5 TFL), Landon Harris (54 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFL, 1 FR), Damion Jones (50 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFL, 1 INT), Zach Strong (39 tackles, 4 INTs), Theo Bryant (34 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 FRs), A.J. McCarty (29 tackles, 0.5 for loss), and Royshad Henderson (27 tackles, 1 TFL).
On the flip side of the ball, the Lions generate 35 points and 385 yards — 229 on the ground and 156 through the air — with four turnovers on the season. Half of those giveaways occurred last week as Brownwood tossed its first two interceptions, with one turning into a pick six.
Behind the line of Bryant, Ethan Pesina, Brad Robinson, Jimi Brown and Tyler Tiner among others, Reece Rodgers has churned out 1,264 yards and 18 touchdowns on 162 carries — an average of 7.8 yards per rush. Quarterback Drew Huff has contributed 574 yards and seven touchdowns on 62 carries and Royshad Henderson has rushed for 202 yards and a score on 28 carries.
Through the air, Huff has completed 75 of 123 passes for 1,346 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. Primary receiving threats include McCarty (34-792, 8 TDs), Dane Johnson (17-165, TD), Strong (10-155, TD), Isyah Campos (6-156, 2 TDs), Rodgers (6-59), and Harris (2-37, TD).
Defensive players to watch for China Spring, according to Burnett, include Peoples, Brett Spell and Jacob Kuligowski in the secondary, along with Josh Thomas up front.
“It's going to boil down to who executes and who controls the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball,” Burnett said. “China Spring is a good football team and we're going to have our hands full but what an opportunity for us to sharpen that iron a little bit more before we head to the playoffs and get some of those gold balls.”
According to Harris Ratings Weekly, Brownwood is a 15-point favorite.