Corsicana Tigers coach Hal Wasson was asked recently to give his team a grade for the season — a season in which the Tigers have made big strides since Wasson's first practice with the team last spring.
“I won't give them a grade just yet,” Wasson said. “I'll wait for the final exam.”
That exam comes Friday night in Denton, where the Tigers face Denton Braswell in the opening round of the Class 5A DII playoffs in a bi-district showdown that could well define their season.
The Tigers have improved dramatically since last spring and enter the playoffs with a 7-3 record as the No. 3 seed, and now face the best passing team they have seen all year at Collins Stadium, where the kickoff is set for 7 Friday night – hopefully fireworks will not follow.
“They're a real explosive team,” said Wasson, who has seen enough of Braswell to know his kids will have to play their best defensive game of the season.
The Bengals and their quarterback, Greyson Thompson, have put up video-type numbers this season, and will be playing a home game (their reward for being the No. 2-seed from District 7-5A DII).
It's true Corsicana's secondary has improved all season and allowed only 127 yards of passing a game (a more than respectable number for Texas 5A teams), but they haven't seen an offense like Braswell's.
Thompson, who threw for 1,500 yards last year, has lit up the scoreboard as a senior, throwing for 2,766 yards and 30 touchdowns this year. He has completed 176 of 282 passes (62 percent) and loves to go deep.
Braswell has rushed for 2,365 yards with a running game that's led by Ifesimi Yessuff, who has run for 1,014 yards on 113 carries (9.0 average), and Cameron Lara (554 yards) and Jamerion Sanford (526 yards) have also been big weapons.
Thompson has a trio of junior receivers who have all had big seasons. Cam Smith, who has led the Bengals in receiving for two years, caught 65 passes for 1,064 yards (16.4 average) and a dozen touchdowns. J'kalon Carter has 42 receptions for 581 yards (13.8) and Jacob Hernandez has caught 27 passes for 530 yards. The threesome has combined to score 23 touchdowns.
The Bengals, who run an up-tempo offense, have scored 458 points, and bring a seven-game winning streak with them to the playoffs. They haven't lost since Frisco edged them 33-28 back on September 13 in the district opener. They ended up tied with Frisco (both at 7-1) for the district title and landed in the No. 2 seed based on that loss more than two months ago.
The Bengals beat Red Oak, which has been ranked in the state poll most of the season and is currently ranked No. 7, and they beat the Hawks easily 42-30.
Braswell has put up 50 or more points three times this season and lit up Lebanon for 65 points. The Bengals are coming off 47-18 win over Denison and beat last year's district champ Reedy 37-7. Texas Football magazine picked Braswell to finish fifth in the district and missed that call badly.
Wasson has played his share of games at Collins Stadium and knows the area well. He also knows his Tigers, and believes his kids can win the game.
“They rely heavily on the big play,” he said. “They run about 60 percent of the time and throw the ball 40 percent, but they have shown to be an explosive team. He (Thompson) is good quarterback. We certainly can't allow him to get into a rhythm. We're going to do our best not to let them do that.
“The good news for us is that our defense is the most solid part of our football team. Our defense has been consistent, and they play hard. I anticipate they will play well Friday. Our defense is very physical, and our defense has improved all year and has become better and better each week.”
Several players have stepped up on defense, including defensive end Ricky Olvera, who was on the JV team last year.
“Ricky Olvera has been the most consistent player all year,” Wasson said. “Our front (defensive line and linebackers) has been consistent and our secondary has made improvements. The strength of our team has been our defense.”
Tyler Farmer has been a leader for three years at linebacker and Eric Dickson, who has also played at tailback, has been a strong linebacker for two seasons. Brayshun Parrish is a force at nose guard and Jacob Lopez has had a good year on the defensive line.
The secondary has seen Ja'Braylan Douglas step up all season and Shemar Smith has had his moments.
The secondary, which includes Denbow, who is a big playmaker, will be tested Friday, and will need to play its best game of the season, and the front seven will have to put pressure on Thompson and slow down Braswell's fast-paced offense.
The Tigers defense has played well, and was hurt in the team's two district losses to Royse City and Ennis by turnovers, which proved to be costly in those losses.
The Tigers have played well in close games, and have played some of their best football in the second half of games all season when the defense stepped up and shut down teams down the stretch.
Wasson still wants to see a complete game performance from his team, which played exceptionally well in the first and fourth quarters against Ennis (the best team on Corsicana's schedule) but fell behind in part because of costly turnovers in the second quarter of that 30-21 loss.
Corsicana's coaches have emphasized all week to protect the ball Friday. The Tigers simply cannot afford to give Braswell any breaks.
The Tiger offense will need a big game Friday night. Wasson's all-sophomore backfield has had its moments this season, and tailback Anthony Young, who missed the Ennis game with an injury, is expected to start alongside Demarius Daniels. Both running backs have had big games this season.
Daniels leads the Tigers with 694 yards on 105 carries (6.6 average), and Young has rushed for 407 yards on just 65 carries (6.3). Neither was in the backfield on opening night, but both have found their spot in the backfield and both have produced 100-yard nights. Tiger quarterback Solomon James has completed 108-of-229 passes for 1,635 yards and 15 touchdowns, and he threw three touchdowns in his Tigers' finale against an Ennis team that had the best defense the Tigers have seen all year.
Lane Fuentes has led the team in receiving all year and has 46 receptions for 635 yards (13.8) and five touchdowns. Qua Chambers has caught 24 passes for 420 yards (17.5), and Drew Denbow, who has had to spend time on both sides of the ball as a member of the secondary, has made some big receptions when he has played receiver and is a big-play threat any time he's on the field. He has 10 receptions for 142 yards, and he caught the winning touchdown pass in the final seconds to beat North Forney.
Wasson wants to see a big effort from everyone on Friday.
“If you have a competitive spirit you see this as a great opportunity,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to meet a challenge. That has to be the mindset. Teams that stay focused win big games. We have to stay focus and do our job.
“And we've got to tackle,” he said. “They're not a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust team. They're explosive and they win with big plays. We can't give up big plays this week.”
This is the playoffs, and this is where the Tigers want to be — and where Wasson sees an opportunity for his team.
“I'm confident,” he said. “I'm always confident. I like our game plan. I know this is going to be a tremendous challenge. You stick with what you know. We have to play focused and play hard every play and go at it play-by-play.
“You're in the state playoffs and you've got a chance to win,” he said. “We want to make the most of it.”