CLASS 1A STATE SEMIFINAL PREVIEW: Breaking down the six-man playoff action

Photo by Kelly Guess

We’ve reached the state semifinals of the Class 1A Texas high school football playoffs, and Dave Campbell’s Texas Football six-man insider Leman Saunders breaks down the four matchups. Who will be the first teams to punch their tickets to the 2019 Texas high school football state championship games at AT&T Stadium?

DIVISION I

McLean (12-1) vs. Rankin (12-1)
6 p.m. Saturday at Wolfforth's Peoples Bank Stadium

Region II has received much of the publicity out West for its murderers row of teams, so McLean — the defending state champs out of Region I — has found a way to fly under the radar. In a much-hyped rivalry rematch with district foe White Deer, the Tigers ran over the Bucks in a 59-12 mercy rule win. As big of a story as that was, Region II still managed to grab the spotlight with Rankin's relatively shocking 78-32 win over No. 1 Borden County, finishing the game via mercy rule on an intereception return for a touchdown.

Rankin, led by coach Garret Avalos, has hit its stride at the perfect time, upsetting then-No. 1 Balmorhea to win the district title in Week 11, avenging its lone loss to Sterling City in bi-district play, and capping the run with last week's win over Borden County. The Red Devils are reportedly at full health and bedeviling defenses with their speedy, multi-threat attack. De'shon Goodley has amazing speed, and quarterback Titan Quigg is a threat through the air with Ben Rios and Braxton Kirkland joining the fray. On the defensive side, Kirkland is a hard hitter in the middle, and the overall team speed takes away the corners of even the best offenses.

McLean boasts arguably the best player in all of Class 1A in RB/LB Ben Crockett — he's one fo those players that can single-handedly take over a game and dominate, amassing more than 2,500 yards and 60 touchdowns rushing while remaining a solid passing threat as well. Big linemen help Crockett succeed, with Cade Reichman, Dalton Abshire and Keaton Helton holding down the offensive front. Defensively, McLean is solid and built to stop the run, again with a dominant line and Crockett at linebacker.

The key to this game is on the defensive side for both teams. Can Rankin stop a power-run offense? Can McLean keep up with Rankin's speed? Both teams have solid PAT kickers, so extra points should play out the same, which is usually a difference-maker in pick'em games like this. McLean is probably the least-talked about state champions in Texas, and the spotlight on Regoin II plays right into Tigers coach Clint Linman's hands. The Tigers will be out for blood, and having the best player on the field could give them the edge in an epic semifinal.

Players to Watch: McLean — Ben Crockett, Dalton Abshire, Jacob Watson; Rankin — De’shon Goodley, Braxton Kirkland, Titan Quigg
Tweetable Saturday Headline: McLean Pounds Their Way Past Rankin & Into the Title Game to Defend Its Crown
Leman's Pick: McLean by 2

Blum (11-2) vs. Jonesboro (12-1)
7 p.m. Friday at Hico's Tiger Stadium

Last week, Blum rallied from an 18-point first-half deficit to survive a scrappy Saint Jo, 54-30, advancing to the semifinals for the first time since 2014. Jonesboro also trailed at halftime against Nueces Canyon before outscoring the Panthers 63-6 to the rest of the way to romp to 83-34 win. This semifinal is a rematch of a Week 2 game in which Jonesboro snuck by Blum in a low-scoring affair, 20-6. It's safe to say that both squads aren't the same as they were back in September.

This may play out as a run-dominant team (Jonesboro) against a balanced-if-pass-heavy team (Blum). Jonesboro amassed more than 500 yards on the ground last week behind a strong performance from Ian Shoaf, who ran for 242 yards and three scores on just 12 carries. Almost every play for Blum will run through either Dylan Vardeman or Coltin Gonzales, who complement each other well and can both run or pass. Vardeman's play may be the key — he seems to be coming into his own at the most pivotal time of the season.

Remarkably, both teams average 49 points per game and allow 17.5 point per game, which makes this seem like one of those "who has the ball last?" games. The big-game experience for coach Eddie Gallegos and Jonesboro —remember: the Eagles have played for the state title in two of the last three years — gives them a slight edge, but anything can happen in this one.

Players to Watch: Blum – Dylan Vardeman, Coltin Gonzales, Blain Garza; Jonesboro – Ian Shoaf, Brandon Nemelka, Keith Sanders
Tweetable Saturday Headline: Jonesboro Eagles Are Soaring Back to State
Leman's Pick: Jonesboro by 6

DIVISION II

Motley County (10-3) vs. Blackwell (13-0)
6:30 p.m. Friday at Knox City's Greyhound Field

Perhaps the least-talked about match-up in all of Class 1A is this one, for the west semifinal in Division II. In a battle of Top 10 squads, Motley County survived its battle with rival Groom, 62-56, to move into its first semifinal since 2011. Blackwell exacted a little revenge on No 1 Jayton — who thumped the Hornets in the playoffs the previous year — by upsetting the Jaybirds, 62-54.

Thanks to its big win last week, Blackwell is the odds-on favorite, boasting one of the most balanced teams in the state — seven different players scored in the Hornets' win over Jayton. QB Michael Lowry works with a solid receiving core that should give the Matadors' secondary trouble. But Motley County’s old-school tight offense is nothing to look past, as the Matadors may be the best blocking team left in Division II. Coach Mike Bigham is blessed with one of the best running backs in the state in Jake Richards, who is over 3,000 yards on the ground this year. The Matadors' play-action with Demetric Sims and big receiver Kade Wampler is solid enough to keep defenses honest. Another thing to keep an eye on: Motley County has a heck of an onside kicking game, which could steal some possessions.

The game ultimately comes down to defense — which team will make the stops and force a turnover or two? Blackwell has the superior statistical defense (17.6 points allowed per game to Motley County's 37), and that could enable it to survive a tough young Matadors squad.

Players to Watch: Motley County – Jake Richards, Kade Wampler, Dereck Fisk; Blackwell – Michael Lowry, Joel Guia, Sam Brinkman
Tweetable Saturday Headline: Hornets Set to Swarm AT&T, Advance to School’s First Ever Title Game
Leman's Pick: Blackwell by 16

Strawn (9-4) vs. Richland Springs (11-0)
7 p.m. Friday at Abilene's Shotwell Stadium

It is always a classic when these two meet up, as two of the biggest programs in six-man football square off for a spot at AT&T Stadium.

Strawn exacted a little revenge on district rival Gordon last week, avenging a Week 11 loss by pulling away late to win, 64-40. Richland Springs turned in a near flawless performance in the Region IV final, dominating Oakwood 72-12 and ending the game at halftime via mercy rule.

Both teams feature star players and a great supporting cast. The two-time defending champs Strawn boast do-it-all star J.W. Montgomery, who is a pack of dynamite — a small, quick and powerful running back that has a good arm in the option-pass, and is a hard-hitting linebacker as well (not to mention the team's top kicker). Marco Lopez and David Shugart shore up the defense and are big-time blockers for the Greyhounds, and the Garcias — Matthew and Lorenzo — and Luke Eli are threats in the receiving game. For Richland Springs, QB Landon Burkhart who has a solid arm and limber legs that can evade and scamper when needed. Around him are the tough-as-nails Rigdon brothers — Matthew and Griff —and little-talked about do-it-all Lane Shannon and defensive stalwart Wade Appleton.

The biggest difference between these two teams is the schedule. For the second straight year, Strawn has played a murderer's row of Division I schools, suffering some losses and getting banged up along the way. Not to mention, the Greyhounds played rival Gordon twice, a top 10 team itself. But Strawn now appears to be near-full health just in time for this showdown. Richland Springs' schedule was less challenging — aside from a Week 1 win over always-competitive May, the Coyotes did not square off against a high-quality opponent until a second-round meeting with Calvert, where Richland Springs won on a last-minute touchdown. Strawn will be the hardest-hitting and best-conditioned team the Coyotes have faced all year, and this game may come down to how well Richland Springs responds to Strawn's physicality. It could be that Strawn's defense wears down Richland Springs, allowing the Greyhounds to pull away late and advance to its third straight title game.

Players to Watch: Richland Springs – Matthew Rigdon, Landon Burkhart, Lane Shannon; Strawn – JW Montgomery, David Shugart, Marco Lopez
Tweetable Saturday Headline: Strawn Pelts the Coyotes, Heading Back to AT&T for Third Straight Year
Leman's Pick: Strawn by 10

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