Last season, the injury epidemic became so severe at Carthage the Bulldogs were down to their fifth-string tailback before the playoffs had even begun. And a rare second-round exit ensued for the defending state champs.

The 2015 season has been filled with just as many, if not more, health issues. But Carthage has used the setbacks to stoke the fires that continue to burn.

"We went through so many injuries early, and we had to play a lot of guys that had never played on Friday nights before," said Bulldogs coach Scott Surratt. "And they have grown up. Some of those guys needed experience on Friday nights, and now we know they can get the job done."

Getting the job done may be putting it mildly.

Following an impressive 44-20 rout of Bridge City in bi-district, Carthage took out back-to-back undefeated opponents -- Stafford, then defending state champion Navasota.

And last week's 56-40 win over Silsbee has Carthage one win away from playing for its fifth state championship since 2008.

Bulldogs senior quarterback Jarod Blissett is enjoying an all-state caliber campaign. He broke his own school record, set earlier this season, with 435 passing yards against Silsbee, and tied the program mark with six touchdown passes.

For the season, Blissett has thrown for 3,872 yards with 41 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He needs only 132 more yards to break Carthage's single-season passing record of 4,003, set by current UTSA quarterback Blake Bogenschutz in the Bulldogs' 2013 state championship season.

"He knows our system better," Surratt said of Blissett. "He'll still make a bad throw here or there, just like any quarterback in college, NFL, or whatever. But he's just a lot more comfortable back there with our offense, and he's got some really good receivers to throw the ball to."

Senior wideout Jakeldric Jackson, a 1,000-yard receiver from a year ago, is in the midst of one of the best seasons ever for a Carthage pass-catcher. He enters this week with 83 receptions for 1,477 yards and 16 touchdowns, and is seven catches from moving to sole possession of second place on the school's single-season receptions list.

But Carthage has also a couple of sophomore targets in the receiving corps in Hunter Townsend and Dequavius Bowens. Townsend has 45 catches for 731 yards and six touchdowns, while Bowens is coming off a 111-yard, three-touchdown performance against Silsbee.

"Jakeldric's had a huge year for us," Surratt said. "Townsend had been banged up during the year, he's finally healthy, Dequavius Bowens came in with Townsend down, and we found out he can play on Friday nights."

However, Carthage, in what has become the narrative this season, will be forced to play without one of its emerging offensive stars. Sophomore running back Keaontray Ingram, who rushed for 366 yards and five touchdowns in the playoff wins over Navasota and Stafford, was injured early in the Silsbee game and will not return this season.

That means for attempts for senior running back Ravodney Hardy, who leads the team with with 1,003 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.

"We're going to give him the ball some more," Surratt said of Hardy. "There's a reason he didn't get many carries early in the season; he was banged up. He's finally healthy now. It's a shame about Ingram because he was playing really well for us. So now we're down to one back, but we've moved some guys around to give us a little bit more depth back there."

The Carthage running game could be key in Friday night's Class 4A Division I semifinal against unbeaten Waco La Vega, which features a loaded secondary that includes Oklahoma commit Parrish Cobb and SMU pledge Brandon Benson.

"Defensively, they'll be our biggest challenge of the year," Surratt said of La Vega. "They have four college players in their secondary. They have a U.S. Army All-American at corner who's committed to OU, they have a safety who's committed to SMU. They have a younger safety who may be even better than him, and the other corner's really good. They'll be the biggest challenge to our passing game all year."

Surratt noted La Vega's overall team speed as a concern for his defense.

"Offensively, they have speed that kills," he said. "We're going to have to keep them from breaking it out into the open, and not miss tackles in the open field."

Carthage's defense has allowed 88 points the last two weeks, but has come away with late-game stops when it's needed them the most.

"We have confidence in our defense and our defensive staff," Surratt said. "They've faced two of the best offenses in the state, there's no doubt about that. But they've made some big stops, especially in the second half."

Bulldogs senior defensive end and UTSA commit Jarrod McLin has served as the team's defensive closer the last two weeks.

"Jarrod's a great athlete and he has a great motor," Surratt said. "He's just hard to block. You may have him blocked for a second, but he just continues to go. He's good at getting after the quarterback but he's making other plays, too. He had an interception against Navasota, and last week he had a fumble recovery and returned in about 70 yards. He's our guy on defense, our captain on defense."

Kickoff for Friday's semifinal is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. from Garland's Homer B. Johnson Stadium. The winner will play the winner between Abilene Wylie (12-2) and Argyle (13-1) in the 4A D-I championship game at noon Friday (Dec. 18) at Houston's NRG Stadium.