CARTHAGE -- Not many football teams boast a 2,600-yard passer, 1,500-yard rusher, and 1,200-yard receiver. Carthage does.

The coaching staff knows its skill players are great, but ask them why their balanced pro-style offense clicks, and they point to the offensive line.

That's become a theme for the Bulldogs during their rise to power under sixth-year coach Scott Surratt, who has Carthage poised for its fourth state championship appearance in five years. Carthage (11-2) faces El Campo (13-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Lamar University's Provost Umphrey Stadium in Beaumont in a Class 3A Division I state semifinal.

Carthage has gained a reputation for large, physical linemen, and perhaps the Bulldogs' greatest offensive strength is their ability to choose how they beat teams. Quarterback Blake Bogenschutz can throw for six touchdowns in a game, as he did in a 54-14 win at Rusk in early October. Then the running game can gash a 10-win team like Silsbee in the Region III final for more than 300 yards in a 50-21 rout.

An offensive line averaging 260 pounds per player is the reason.

"Early in the year they understood the basic schemes and now they've gotten so much better with the finer coaching points of things and they're understanding," said offensive coordinator and O-line coach Chris Smith. "I think that's when we really made strides this year, when they started to understand the finer things of what we wanted to do."

The result is an eight-game winning streak in which Carthage has averaged 49.4 points per game. Only once in those eight contests has Carthage scored fewer than 45 points.

Carthage has a three-year varsity starter protecting Bogenschutz's blind side: 6-foot, 230-pound Mario McCain, who also starts at defensive end. Griffin Bankhead, who is 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, mans the left guard spot. Cade Clinton (6-2, 225) plays perhaps the line's most important role at center, where he is responsible for helping with protection adjustments and making calls at the line of scrimmage. The biggest of the bunch is right guard Adrian Goodacre, a 6-foot-4, 315-pound behemoth. Tackle Dillon Husar (6-1, 240) joins Goodacre on the right side.

By the way ... they're all juniors. Fellow junior Garrett Harvey and senior Will Harris rotate in to give the Bulldogs solid depth and starter-quality play off the bench.

Playing in such a complex offense -- not many high school programs run true pro-style offenses that balance the run and pass in mostly under-center formations -- makes for a steep learning curve for the offensive linemen.

"It's tough. We rely on our center to make the good call to get us set in a good front. Then it's just communication and understanding our calls," Smith said. "A lot of times it's a rhythm of calls. It's tough, there's no doubt it's tough. There's a lot of time that goes into it for them."

The players say a lot of the credit goes to Smith.

"We've just got great coaches," Bankhead said. "We're always a unit and everybody's trying to help each other out. We've got great coaches out here trying to make a difference in the kids, so it always works out."

 

"We've just got great coaches. ... We've got great coaches out here trying to make a difference in the kids, so it always works out."

-- Carthage left guard Griffin Bankhead

 

With five starting linemen who all have another year together ahead of them, Carthage should be even better up front in 2013. That parallels the offensive front that helped the Bulldogs win the first two of their three consecutive 3A Division II state championships from 2008-10. Kendrick "Bingo" Henderson, Cutter Clinton -- Cade's older brother -- Jerod Odom, Logan Bradstreet, and tight end Trevor Murphy started three consecutive seasons together beginning in Surratt's first year at Carthage (2007).

The current junior group won't have that many starts together, but they'll have plenty come next season. Between this group and that group there's been significant turnover on the offensive line, but Carthage has remained strong with players such as 2012 Oklahoma State signee Greg Brantley and former starters Chad Kelly and Mitch Davis.

Smith said the program fosters continuity, regardless of personnel.

"I think our kids do a good job of helping teaching the younger kids. When we had that group in '09 that played 40-something games together, they did a good job of teaching the young guys through drills," Smith said. "Then that group did a good job of teaching this group. That's really helped. The guys do a really good job of helping each other."

Husar said the familiarity among the junior linemen is a big help.

"It gets us all to know each other a little bit more and play a little harder for each other," Husar said.

Surratt had another explanation for the continued success.

"I think there's one common thing that's always there and that's our O-line coach, coach Smith. He does a tremendous job with them," Surratt said. "I coached him in high school and he was a great player, and was fortunate to get him to come coach with us. He's just a great coach and a great man."

Bogenschutz brings 2,664 passing yards and 37 touchdown throws -- which trails only Anthony Morgan's back-to-back seasons of 41 in 2009-10 in school history -- into Friday night's state semifinal. Tee Goree brings his 1,237 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches -- second in school history behind Jalen Claiborne's 18 in 2010. It's obvious the Dawgs enjoy throwing the ball.

But the later in the postseason it gets, the more Carthage runs the ball. Tevin Pipkin's 194-yard game a week ago fueled Carthage's big night on the ground, which propelled the Dawgs to the 29-point victory. Carthage has leaned on the ground game in the latter stages of previous playoff runs as well, such as Hunter Holland's 320-yard state semifinal performance vs. Brownwood in 2010 and Dwight Smith's string of huge rushing games in 2008.

Surratt said that's a product of concentrating on the run and getting the right matchups. Chris Smith and the players added that they love getting the opportunity to run block in big-game situations.

"It's something we always try to take pride in with that group. We understand in non-district and even some in district, there's times where the passing game presents itself and that's what you've gotta do," Smith said. "But we always preached to them in meetings and inside run and drill time that there's gonna be a time when we've gotta run it and we know it's usually late in the year. There's gonna be a game in the playoffs when we've gotta run it. This week may be, last week was. We had a big night running. And we tell them that night's coming."

 

"There's gonna be a game in the playoffs when we've gotta run it. This week may be, last week was."

-- Carthage offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Chris Smith

 

Surratt said it's no coincidence that the running game excels later in the season.

"We were probably a little bit ahead in the pass blocking than the run blocking (early in the season), and that's the case a lot of times for us because run blocking is more timing than pass blocking," he said. "The more they play the better timing they get and the better run fits get."

While Bogenschutz, Pipkin (almost 3,300 career rushing yards), and Goree chase school milestones, the offensive line will pave the way. After all, those three skill guys will be back next year with an intact offensive line, plus fellow juniors in receivers Okeeron Rutherford (eight touchdowns), Kolby Blissett (nine touchdowns), tight end Jamarcus Roberson, and sophomore running back Bryian Bolton (six touchdowns).

Even if the skill players get the glory, the coaches know the offensive line makes it all happen.

Of course, Bankhead said it doesn't hurt when your skill guys are as talented as Carthage's.

"They're real good skill guys. They always make it better," Bankhead said. "You're trying to compete and each person makes you better."

 

Carthage's starting offensive linemen, seated starting at left: Dillon Husar, Adrian Goodacre, Cade Clinton, Griffin Bankhead, and Mario McCain. Key reserves standing are Will Harris (71) and Garrett Harvey (55). (Christopher Vinn, ETSN.fm)