Vanquish prolific passer. Check.
Draw more prolific passer in next round. Check.
It appears as though it wasn’t enough to outrun a high-flying passing game in the third round of the playoffs. What someone really wants to see is if the Panthers are up to rushing past a second passing squad a week later.
That’s what Liberty Hill has drawn in the Region 4 Championship in opponent Sharyland Pioneer.
The Diamondbacks are led by senior quarterback Eddie Marburger.
“They’re a very high-powered offense,” Panther head coach Kent Walker said of Pioneer. “Their quarterback is special. He is one of the best quarterbacks I’ve seen on film and he can do it all. He can beat you with his legs if he needs to, but he’s got a great arm and a quick release.”
To put “special” in perspective, in eight games this season, Marburger has passed for 363 yards per game, then added another 130 yards per contest on the ground for good measure.
He’s thrown for 30 scores – against only two interceptions, both on Oct. 16 – and tacked on 24 rushing touchdowns for himself.
Walker said Pioneer is not a one-dimensional team, but there’s no mistaking the greatest threat.
“They have a good defense, but their offense is what stands out the most,” Walker said. “They’ve got receivers he can get the ball to and they are all good. They run great routes, they find holes and sit in the holes and (Marberger) does a great job keeping his eyes downfield while he’s scrambling. You can’t come off the receiver because of you do he will hit them.”
The Diamondbacks are allowing 37 points per game this season, giving up 47 to Liberty Hill district foe Marble Falls in a playoff win two weeks ago. The Panthers held Marble Falls to seven points, that score coming on a fumble recovery and return by the Mustang defense.
Pioneer is most recently coming off a 77-64 shootout win over Georgetown Eastview.
After Marburger, the Diamondbacks’ leafing rusher is Taylor Esparza with 300 yards and four scores. Three receivers have 500 or more yards connecting with Marburger. Tristan Castillo has 935 yards on 55 catches and seven touchdowns, Joseph Graham has 40 grabs for 893 yards and a dozen scores, and JJ Snyman has 29 catches for 500 yards and five touchdowns. In all, 11 players have caught passes for Pioneer.
All the numbers for the Diamondbacks aside, Walker said his Panthers would have some wrinkles for the new opponent, but would be focused most on their own game plan.
“We will have a few things for them of course, but this will be our 11th game of the year so our kids have been going at it for a while now,” Walker said. “They know what to do and what’s expected of them so at this point in the season both teams know what they want to do and we’re going to do what we do, they’re going to do what they do and it should be a lot of fun come Saturday.”
That game plan is no secret, it is run, run and run some more. Liberty Hill has ripped off 398 yards per game on the ground in an unapologetically single-focused attempt to run the ball.
That rushing game is expected to be a big weapon against the high-powered diamondback offense, something Walker sees as an advantage.
“It is because a lot of times as a defensive coach I always say our best defense is our offense,” he said. “Our offense being on the field and taking time off the clock is going to be huge for us this week.”
Time and again this season, in critical moments, Panther quarterback Charlie Calabretta has shown he can connect with a receiver, catching the defense off guard. Just such an occasion set up a score late against Rouse when he hit Blake Simpson for 45 yards and a critical first down. Calabretta has completed 10-of-17 passes this season for 259 yards, five of those for touchdowns.
But the run is the focus, and Simpson is the leading carrier in the multi-back attack. Simpson has 1,480 yards, averaging 11 yards per carry, while fellow senior Trey Seward is a close second with 1,239 yards. The pair has combined for 40 touchdowns. Eric De La Cruz has 569 yards and nine scores, Noah Long has 304 and six touchdowns, while Calabretta has racked up 286 yards rushing and four trips to the end zone carrying the ball.