Several long-anticipated matchups come to fruition in the 5A and 4A state semifinals.
Well, they're not all the matchups we expected, but it never hurts to be surprised once in a while.
DeSoto vs. Allen? Sure, we could see that one coming. Katy vs. Steele? That one, too. Denton Guyer vs. John Tyler? Makes sense. But Cedar Hill vs. Westlake? O'Connor vs. Houston Lamar? Georgetown vs. Leander Rouse? All of those are shocking semis, indeed, and ones that will, one way or another, land a Cinderella story in the state finals next week at Cowboys Stadium.
But regardless of how we got here, these matchups are all worth digesting — here's to what looks like a simply spectacular lineup of games, and a tasty table setting for next week's grand finale.
DeSoto (14-0) vs. Allen (13-1), 6:00 PM Saturday, SMU (Televised live on Fox Sports Southwest Plus)
So how good is DeSoto right now? Well, let's see — the Eagles have now beaten, in three consecutive weeks, Coppell, Arlington Bowie and Southlake Carroll. That's pretty incredible. Don't get me wrong, it's not like Allen has slogged through a bunch of slouches or anything; the Eagles have rolled Mesquite, Round Rock Westwood and Dallas Skyline. But two of those teams on DeSoto's resume were state title picks here in the DCTF offices; I thought Coppell was the best team alive in Week 11, then switched to Southlake Carroll after the Cowboys fell. But in the end, DeSoto survived the toughest region in all of Texas — and looked spectacular doing it. For so long, we said DeSoto was beaten by covering their skill players, or disrupting their passing, and the like. But now I think it may be about Allen's offense — yes, Carroll got its points against DeSoto last week, but for long stretches, DeSoto played very well on the outside and contested every throw. And with the DL and LB corps playing about as well as any team in Texas, the traditionally powerful Allen front seven is going to be sorely tested in running the ball with RB Marcus Ward and elusive QB Kyler Murray. I'd be surprised if either team got into the 40s here, but I said that last week, too, and both offenses stepped up in the second half. In short, DeSoto, despite all the doubts all across Texas, has answered the bell every week — it's passed every test it's been presented with. You have to respect that, and you have to respect that DeSoto took apart the only team to beat Allen all year: Coppell. No metric is perfect to predict this game, but my gut says DeSoto. That's where I have to go.
Pick: DeSoto 34, Allen 31
Houston Lamar (14-0) vs. SA O'Connor (12-2), 3:00 PM Saturday, Austin's Burger Center
Well here's a state semifinal matchup no one was expecting — Lamar and O'Connor, a pair of teams that knocked off the two regional favorites in the quarters (North Shore and Madison). I'd bet many a Division I fan is needing a crash course on these two teams. We can help. For Lamar, the record, to a certain extent, speaks for itself: 14-0 is 14-0, no matter where or who you play. Keep in mind that there's only five unbeaten teams left in 5A/4A (out of 16 teams), so that's saying something. And the defense is worthy of your attention, too — incredibly, Lamar has allowed just 124 points all year, the lowest total for any 5A team, anywhere. That includes non-playoff teams that only played 10 games. That's truly remarkable. Behind two-year starter QB Darrell Colbert, the offense has been solid — 39 points per game — but closer to the norm against elite competition. This group wins with defense, plain and simple. So what does that do for O'Connor, then? After all, these Panthers have found themselves in shootouts with Madison, Judson, Holmes, Reagan, etc. Lamar isn't going to let that happen, so O'Connor is going to have to win with some defense, regardless of how well RB Tre Johnson (2,323 yards, 28 TDs) and QB Zach Galindo (2,279 yards, 30 TDs) are playing. We have a contrast of styles, but a cohesion of stories — both of these squads have been underdogs from Week 0, overlooked and dismissed as playoff contenders. Someone's storybook season, sadly, has to come to an end.
Pick: Houston Lamar 24, SA O'Connor 22
Cedar Hill (10-4) vs. Austin Westlake (10-4), 2:00 PM Saturday, Waco ISD
For the second-straight week, you have to shift your mindset when you move to Class 5A Division II, at least in the first two regions. From the heavy-hitters of DI and the other side of the DII bracket, you have these two four-loss teams, squads that played the tortoise to everyone else's hare and didn't let slow starts sink the ship. Both started out a lowly 1-3, looking lost more than once against tough non-district foes. But now let's put the picture in perspective — two of Cedar Hill's early losses came to teams that are still alive right now (Allen and DeSoto), and same goes for Westlake's loss to Steele. One of Westlake's other losses, a 35-17 defeat at the hands of A&M Consolidated, disappeared into the ether when the Chaps got revenge, 45-2, in the second round. Plain and simple: these are just not the same teams that we saw back in September. For Westlake, the improvement came defensively; aside from last week's shootout with Plano West, the Chaps have beaten and bruised every team it's seen since Steele (September 21). The balanced run game is a multi-headed hydra, led by no one and carried by everyone, and QB Jordan Severt has quietly put together a solid season. But Cedar Hill has the one thing Westlake hasn't seen in this kind of concentration in weeks; speed, speed, speed. The Longhorn duo of Laquvionte Gonzalez and QB Damion Hobbs has been unstoppable of late, and adding in massive WR Quincy Adeboyejo (A&M pledge) rounds out the trifecta. Games like this are why Cedar Hill played the toughest schedule it could find in non-district; let's see if it pays off.
Pick: Cedar Hill 35, Westlake 24
Katy (14-0) vs. Cibolo Steele (14-0), 2:00 PM Saturday, Waco's Floyd Casey Stadium (Televised live on Fox Sports Southwest)
And then you have this heavy-hitter — the only battle of unbeatens in the 5A/4A ranks, and a clash between two titans of the sport. And guess what? It's live on Fox Sports Southwest, with heavy DCTF representation — I'm doing the play-by-play, and associate editor Greg Tepper is doing the sideline reporting. TXA21 (DFW station) star LaDarrin McLane is doing the color commentary. Anywho, this one has football fans split, and pretty decisively — Steele, unbeaten as they are, is worthy of everyone's respect and stacked on both side of the ball. Jordan Sterns, a DB/PR/RB, is a legit state-wide star. But Katy has been doing things that I haven't seen in a long while. Check out these scores from the Tigers' last few games, all against quality opponents: 70-21, 55-10, 49-0. That's pretty remarkable stuff, especially when you consider that Katy's defense hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher and a 100-yard passer in the same game all year. For the most part, the Tigers have given a little on one facet of the defense and suffocated the other. They truly make people one-dimensional. I think Steele, with Justin Stockton in the backfield, is going to get some rushing yards. They're just too good to come up short there. That means, if the Katy trend holds, that throwing the ball will be almost impossible against the Tiger DB tandem of Isaiah Brown (10 INTs) and Quinn Atwood (8 INTs). That's a lot of pressure on Steele QB Breylann McCollum, especially when Katy DE Matt Dimon (Oklahoma) is on the prowl. Then again, there's a lot of pressure on Katy QB Kiley Huddleston, too — Steele's pass defense has held seven opponents to less than 50 yards passing this year and picked off 18 passes of its own. But most importantly, Steele can't get buried by the wave; Katy's momentum is almost unstoppable now, and a quick 21-0 hole would be disastrous against a team that knows what to do when it smells blood in the water.
Pick: Sorry ... can't pick this one, because I'm working it!
Denton Guyer (12-2) vs. John Tyler (13-1), 7:30 PM Friday, Midlothian
Well, this is the only game in Class 4A that we can safely say we saw coming — Denton Guyer and John Tyler, the preseason No. 1 and No. 3 teams, finally facing off in a showdown we predicted way back in June. It's how we got to this point that caught us off guard. Tyler enters with a loss to Lancaster, something that shocked everyone at the time but now seems reasonable with the Tigers playing in the 4A-DII semis. And Guyer enters with two losses, both pieces of a sluggish start to the season that threatened to sink the ship before it left the harbor. But now both teams have put the early struggles behind them, and both are playing their best football of the year. I think the key element of this game is Guyer's defense — in short, that unit has had its ups and downs all season, allowing more than 20 points just once in district play, but giving up 30-plus in each of its last three playoff games. Last week it was particularly suspect, coughing up 42 to Birdville. Guyer's offense, led by dual-threat maestro Jerrod Heard (1,829 passing yards, 1,677 rushing yards, 41 total TDs) is one of the best in Class 4A. It can score with anyone. But if the defense doesn't step up against John Tyler, the Lions should be licking their lips. QB Greg Ward has thrown an interception in each of his last two games, but he's still the most accurate signal-caller in Texas, and WRs Fred Ross (1,462 yards, 21 TDs) and Darion Flowers round out a speedy trifecta that few teams have had an answer for. If Guyer can make Ward one-dimensional and take away his running skills, it ups its odds substantially. But that's easier said than done.
Pick: John Tyler 42, Denton Guyer 33
Georgetown (14-0) vs. Leander Rouse (10-4), 1:00 PM Saturday, Cedar Park's Gupton Stadium
Central Texas owns Class 4A this year, putting two teams from both 17-4A and 25-4A in the state semifinals and assuring the greater Austin area of at least two title game participants next weekend at Cowboys Stadium. It's hard not to seen Georgetown as the favorite here; besides the fact that it's the only undefeated team left in the class, it's seen and survived three high-quality opponents in three straight weeks. In the second round, it drew unbeaten Summer Creek (38-21); in the third, it was Angleton (49-39); and last week, it was Nederland (38-6). Keep in mind that Nederland had just beaten the top-ranked team in 4A a week earlier. The winning ingedient for Georgetown — despite those offensive totals and the three WRs with 12 or more touchdowns (Ryan Bedford, Randy Knightner, Austin Weston) — has been the defense. Holding Nederland to six last week was remarkable; the Bulldogs weren't exactly a high-powered offense, but they normally got the job done. The Eagles' 182 points allowed this year is second only to Cedar Park (164) among the eight 4A state semifinalists. But Rouse has made a mockery out of rankings as of late, surging five rounds deep in its first-ever playoff run despite the fact that it had to win in Week 10 — by double-digits — just to make the postseason at all. RB Billy McCrary has surged to the forefront of the ground game, but this is by far and away the toughest team Rouse has seen in the playoffs so far, and the first time in two weeks it's seen anyone outside the Coastal Bend. With an admiring tip of the cap to Rouse for battling this far, I think the Georgetown defense is going to have anoteher impressive day.
Pick: Georgetown 31, Rouse 20
WF Rider (12-2) vs. Lancaster (13-1), 7:30 PM Friday, Justin Northwest
Wow — is Rider impressive or what? Down one of the top QBs in the state (J.T. Barrett; injured), ROHO just keeps rolling like nothing ever happened, turning to a powerful run game and an excellent defense to qualify for their first-ever state semifinal. Even though the offense has had to move on without its star, its the defense that impressed me most last week — it allowed just seven points to high-powered Wolfforth Frenship, destroying the Tigers' run game and forcing a handful of turnovers that sunk the ship. It was particularly dominant along the defensive line, especially in the interior, and that's going to be crucial again here tonight. Lancaster, like Frenship, is going to run the ball; but unlike Frenship, it won't come charging straight ahead into the trenches as much. Lancaster QB Demarcus Ayers and RB Joseph Paden, who both have 1,000-plus yards and 10-plus TDs on the year, have more speed than Frenship did and will test the edges of the Raiders' 3-4 defense all night long. Rider will have to be able to run with those guys, which I think it's shown that it can do. So that places the key factor on the other side of the ball — the oft-doubted Rider offense against the much-lauded Lancaster defense. At some point, people are going to have to respect the Raiders' attack — RBs Domanic Thrasher and Carlos Fleeks have been spectacular in the playoffs, and QB Chase London is maturing into the role. But the Lancaster defense is the fastest and most complete unit ROHO has faced since at least non-district play, and maybe all season. DE Daeshon Hall, one of the best in Texas, had 16 sacks in the regular season alone, and versatile ATH Nick Harvey has been a terror for opposing pass offenses. At this point, Rider has proven it can get the job done, so I won't put anything past it. But I still think Lancaster is the better team tonight.
Pick: Lancaster 24, Rider 19
Manor (11-3) vs. Cedar Park (12-2), 1:00 PM Saturday, Georgetown
Here's the other Austin-area showdown, and like the one up in 4A-DI, it has a favorite (Cedar Park) and an underdog (Manor). Cedar Park, a regular in the 4A postseason, is a fairly known commodity at this point; the Timberwolves are the best defense (statistically) left in the 4A postseason and one of the best in the entire state. The team is physically huge, especially in the trenches, and a physical brand of football wears out opponents week in and week out. QB Nate Grimm has progressed steadily throughout the year, and do-it-all athlete Ethan Fry has proven difficult for the opposition to draw a bead on. The offense isn't overwhelmingly productive, but it gets the job done and wins the war of attrition almost every time. And that brings us to Manor, the team no one expected to be here — after all, the Mustangs have never even played for a state title (neither has Cedar Park, for the record) and haven't been this deep in the postseason since the late 80s. This is rarefied air, folks. And a lot of the pressure is going to come down to RB Tyrone Owens and the rest of the ground game, an offensive facet that CP typically gobbles up. Owens (1,322 yards, 11 TDs) is the head of the beast, but there are one or two other guys Manor uses to keep fresh legs on the field, QB Chris Johnson among them. That overall unit has to be productive; if CP can force this offense to be one-dimensional and stuck in passing mode, it plays right into the Black Rain's hands. Manor saw speed and quickness last week against FB Marshall and downed it; now it'll be asked to prove it can do the same thing against power.
Pick: Cedar Park 24, Manor 17
Travis Stewart is the managing editor of Dave Campbell's Texas Football and TexasFootball.com.
He can be reached via e-mail, via Twitter (@dctf) and via the DCTF Facebook page.