LHHS vs. Navasota: Old school vs. offensive juggernaut

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The Liberty Hill Panthers shocked the entire stadium with a fake field goal in the fourth quarter. Christian Anderson (#23) flipped a pass to Jason Reeves (#20) who ran 18 yards for the decisive touchdown in a 23-15 win over Burnet last Friday. (Kathy Canady Photo)

The Liberty Hill Panthers shocked the entire stadium with a fake field goal in the fourth quarter. Christian Anderson (#23) flipped a pass to Jason Reeves (#20) who ran 18 yards for the decisive touchdown in a 23-15 win over Burnet last Friday. (Kathy Canady Photo)

By BOB VARMETTE

Liberty Hill senior defensive back Jason Reeves isn’t exactly sure how many touchdown receptions Navasota junior wideout Tren’Davian Dickson has this season.

It’s easy to lose count with as many as Dickson has. For the record, it’s 34 – that’s a state record and ties him for the national mark for a season.

Dickson’s numbers are jaw-dropping. Reeves is properly impressed, but not overwhelmed. He believes the Panthers can contain Dickson and the Rattlers’ prolific spread attack.

“I really think we can do it,” Reeves said after a Monday practice in which he and his defensive mates got their first taste from a scout team designed to simulate Navasota’s offense.

The numbers are almost mind-boggling. The Rattlers have scored 830 points this season – that’s almost 60 per game – and they scored 87 points against Houston Sterling and 85 against Houston Furr.

Their version of the spread produces yards at a clip of 534 per contest. Junior quarterback Shelton Eppler through 14 games is 241-of-352 for 4,525 yards and 61 touchdowns.

Pity senior wideout Jerbrell Lipscomb – he has 52 catches for 778 yards and five touchdowns this season. He’s almost an afterthought in an offense that has Dickson, who has already committed to Baylor.

You could say that also about the Rattlers’ running backs. They average more than 200 yards per game, with three running backs who each have more than 500 yards rushing this season, including senior Derrion Randle, who rushed for 1,104 yards and 14 touchdowns before getting injured in Navasota’s second district game. He’s expected to play Friday, by the way.

“We have a productive offense,” Navasota coach Lee Fedora said.

“But we have a great system and these kids have been doing this since they were in the seventh grade. It’s basic stuff, but we have talented athletes. They understand the offense.”

And they’ve taken advantage of the transformation of offenses. Thirty years ago, there were no spread teams – numbers like Navasota’s weren’t even dreamed of.

Football was a ground game. Running offenses like Liberty Hill’s Slot-T dominated the Texas landscape.

Throwing teams of the distant past threw the ball 20-25 times a game. Now, it’s sometimes done in a quarter.

Liberty Hill coach Jerry Vance has seen the arc of offensive transformation. He can’t assign a definitive cause to that transformation, but he has theories.

“I don’t know, but I think in the last 20-25 years any rules that have been changed by the NCAA have all been offensive oriented, and it’s all been geared toward high-scoring offenses because high-scoring offenses sell tickets,” Vance said. “Like it or not, money is the name of the game. Money drives everything. So these changes make it easier for more prolific offenses and people put up a lot of points.”

The athletes have probably always been there, Vance said. But that’s difficult to truly ascertain, because if they were there they were playing in systems that didn’t showcase those talents.

It’s certain, he added, the players are bigger. Vance said players who were 6-foot-4 or 6-5 and weighed 240 or 250 pounds were anomalies 30 years ago – monsters who could take over a game.

Now, they’re commonplace.

As the transformation occurred, whatever the proximate cause, scoring correspondingly increased. Defensive expectations changed, too, and defensive mantras like “keep ’em under 17” and “zero big plays” were essentially discarded.

“The defense keeps adapting,” Vance said. “I hate to say smarter, but you have to play smarter and devise other schemes to take advantage of what you can do.”

Vance wouldn’t mind a return to the days of dominant ground attacks, but he lives in the present. And the present is Navasota – a team that will test his physical defense with its speed when the old-school Panthers (12-2) and the new-school Rattlers (14-0) collide at 7 p.m. Friday at McLane Stadium in Waco in a Class 4A Division I semifinal.

Liberty Hill will also rely on a time-tested tool to help contain the manic Navasota offense: control time of possession. The Panthers’ old-school ability to burn minutes off the clock is THE concern for the Rattlers.

“They’re a great football team,” Fedora said. “Coach Vance is a legendary coach and his teams play hard-nosed football. They execute their offense as well as anybody in the state of Texas. We’ve got to get stops. We’ve got to play gap responsibility. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”

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