CHINA SPRING — Knotted at 7 at halftime after a second straight sluggish start, the Class 4A Division I No. 6 Brownwood Lions eventually returned to early-season form, dominating the second half en route to a 41-14 victory over the District 5 rival China Spring Cougars.
The Lions (9-1, 3-1) reeled off 34 unanswered points to begin the second half, ignited by a pair of touchdowns in the first five minutes of the third quarter that wrestled away any and all momentum from the Cougars (3-7, 1-3).
“We just challenged them,” Lions second-year head coach Sammy Burnett said in regard to the difference between the first and second halves. “We weren't running the ball. We weren't controlling the line of scrimmage up front offensively. They sort of stymied us and we made a couple of adjustments and our kids came out and executed well like they can and like they should.”
China Spring began the second half with the ball, but was limited to a three-and-out that featured a fumble the Cougars were able to recover. With 9:13 left in the third period, and Brownwood facing a second-and-11 from its own 30 after a 1-yard loss on its first snap of the half, quarterback Drew Huff scrambled and bought enough time to find a wide open Dane Johnson at midfield, who outraced the China Spring defense to the end zone with the assistance of downfield blocking from A.J. McCarty. The touchdown put Brownwood in front for good, 14-7.
“That's the guy I wanted to see the first half, the guy I was chewing on for not executing and not taking what they're giving you,” Burnett said of Huff. “He got pressured, worked the pocket, kept his eyes down the field and ran our scramble drill just like we should have. He saw Dane downfield and made a big play.
“The decisions Drew made the second half, the way he operated, that was where it all started. The first half he was sort of befuddled, I don't know what was going on with him. We got him right and he came out and led the offense in the second half. As he goes the team goes and I thought he did a great job.”
Huff completed 9 of 14 passes for 251 yards with a pair of touchdowns, while also rushing for 44 yards. But no play was bigger than the pass to Johnson, who grabbed two receptions for 81 yards.
“I had a hitch, the play got interrupted, Drew ran out of the pocket so I turned it up the field and caught the ball,” Johnson said. “A.J. blocked for me and I'm very thankful for that, and I just ran it all the way in. The defense took over after that.”
China Spring's ensuing drive lasted just three plays before quarterback Brayden Faulkner's pass was tipped by Theo Bryant, and Damion Jones made a diving interception at the Cougar 33. Jones, who was being held out to heal an injury, was forced into action after fellow outside linebacker Landon Harris was hurt.
“One of our key players got hurt so I had to step in and do my job,” Jones said. “I saw Theo hit the ball and I decided to try and make a play and dove and I caught it. Then we were on offense and scored.”
Two plays after the interception, Reece Rodgers — who was limited to -2 rushing yards in the first half after amassing more than 1,200 yards the first nine games — broke loose for a 27-yard touchdown, which quickly extended Brownwood's lead to 21-7 at 7:28 of the third period.
By the end of the night, Rodgers has compiled 153 rushing yards and three more touchdowns on the ground, to along with a 46-yard scoring reception.
“I trust my line and trusted we'd have a strong second half and that's what we did,” said Rodgers, who stands at 1,417 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns on the season. “We executed and made big plays. Landon got hurt so Rowdee (Gregory) came in when we were running jumbo and he had some big blocks. I can't think him and the o-line enough for what they did tonight.”
Brownwood added a third touchdown before the third period ended as Rodgers again scored with seven seconds left in the stanza, padding the cushion to 28-7. The three-play scoring drive occurred after China Spring failed to convert on fourth-and-four at the Lions 47. After an 8-yard run by Rodgers, Huff took a quarterback keeper 40 yards down to the Cougar 5 to set up the score.
After a China Spring three-and-out on the next possession, Brownwood needed just five plays to return to the end zone as Rodgers reeled off a 31-yard scoring sprint that increased the advantage to 34-7 with 9:55 left.
Brownwood's last touchdown was a 3-yard carry by Royshad Henderson with 6:55 remaining. The score was set up by a 29-yard run by Rodgers that featured a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against A.J. McCarty, which led to his ejection. After marking off 30 yards for the penalties, Rodgers galloped 38 yards down to the 3.
The Lions amassed 457 total yards — 248 passing and 209 rushing — despite being limited to 134 yards of total offense in the first half, including just 17 rushing yards on 16 carries. Brownwood generated 323 yards over the final two quarters.
Defensively, the Lions gave up 238 yards, but just 109 after halftime — and 74 of those yards came on the final touchdown drive after Brownwood's starters had exited the game.
“All night long our defense played a great football game and that's the reason we're 9-1,” Burnett said. “Our defense is doing an outstanding job and our offense is following through with that.”
Despite sputtering throughout most of the first half, the Lions struck first with 3:09 left in the opening quarter. Rodgers took a screen pass on the right side from Huff, weaved his way through the China Spring defense and crossed the goal line at the far left corner to complete the 46-yard catch and run.
“I saw a lane and it clogged up so I keep going back and forth, back and forth and I had a nose for the end zone on the play,” Rodgers said. “I knew I had to make something happen.”
China Spring answered with 7:29 left in the first half thanks an 11-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 6-yard scoring run by K.J. Peoples, who rushed for a team-best 69 yards. The touchdown drive followed a missed 42-yard field goal attempt on the previous possession, and failed fourth-down conversion attempts from the Brownwood 42 and 26 earlier in the half.
“We started off real slow so we went in at halftime and coach told us we needed to pick it up, pick up the momentum and keep our head in the game so that's what we did,” Bryant said. “We underestimated them last year and we weren't going to do that last year, so this feels good.”
Brownwood shot itself in the foot in the first half as well with a trio of three-and-outs, a 13-yard punt, a fourth-down conversion erased on a pre-snap penalty and a missed 40-yard field goal at the buzzer.
“When we missed that field goal right before the half I thought it was huge,” Burnett said. “We need to execute those kinds of things in the playoffs to keep advancing.
“We have to get off the bus ready to play and ready to be physical, you can't wait until someone hits you in the mouth. You have to get out and start delivering the blows first. We have to find a way to get off the bus and be focused and ready to play.”
The Lions' 11th straight postseason appearance will commence at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Tarleton Memorial Stadium in Stephenville with a bi-district tilt against District 6-4A Division I third seed Fort Worth Castleberry (7-3), which qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.
LIONS 41, CHINA SPRING 14
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Brownwood 7 0 21 13 - 41
China Spring 0 7 0 7 - 14
B: Reece Rodgers 46 pass from Drew Huff (Zach Strong kick), 3:09, 1st
C: K.J. Peoples 6 run (Karson Coe kick), 7:29, 2nd
B: Dane Johnson 70 pass from Huff (Strong kick), 9:13, 3rd
B: Rodgers 27 run (Strong kick), 7:28, 3rd
B: Rodgers 5 run (Strong kick), 0:07, 3rd
B: Rodgers 31 run (kick failed), 9:55, 4th
B: Royshad Henderson 3 run (Strong kick), 6:59, 4th
C: Sebastian Trevino 9 pass from Brayden Faulkner (Coe kick), 1:48, 4th
TEAM STATS B C
First Downs 16 18
Total Offense 457 238
Rushing Yards 31-209 41-147
Passing Yards 248 91
C-A-I 12-27-1 10-15-0
Fumbles Lost 1 0
Penalties 8-95 4-53
Punts 4-27.0 5-35.2
Rushing: B — Reece Rodgers 17-153, Drew Huff 10-44, Royshad Henderson 3-12, Xavier Satberry 1-0. C — K.J. Peoples 20-69, Brayden Faulkner 12-44, Sergio Watkins 6-28, Major Bowden 6-18, Team 1-(-12).
Passing: B — Huff 9-14-0-251, Blaize Espinoza 1-1-0-(-3). C – Faulker 10-23-1-75, Peoples 2-4-0-16.
Receiving: B — Isyah Campos 3-33, Dane Johnson 2-81, A.J. McCarty 2-64, Rodgers 1-46, Henderson 1-27, Parish White 1-(-3). C — Jacob Kuligowski 5-29, Jordan Nevarez 2-35, Sebastian Trevino 2-22, Cooper Harvill 1-7, Watkins 1-0, Peoples 1-(-2).