Earlier this week, Denton coach Billy Miller praised longtime rival Ryan, likening the defending Class 5A Division I state champions to a machine with a winning culture that dates back as far as he can remember.

On Thursday, that machine fully expects to keep chugging along — even as Miller’s Broncos stand firmly in its way.

Ryan (2-1, 1-0 District 5-5A Division I) will face Denton (0-3, 0-1) at 7 p.m. at C.H. Collins Athletic Complex. This is the 21st meeting between the two programs — making it the Denton school district’s oldest rivalry. Ryan, ranked No. 1 in Dave Campbell’s Texas Football’s recent 5A Division I poll, leads the all-time series 17-3.

“[Ryan coach Dave] Henigan said in a tweet that the Raiders will be just fine, and he’s absolutely right,” Miller said while referring to a Twitter post shortly after Ryan’s 14-7 overtime loss to Guyer two weeks ago. “They’ve done a good job getting back to basics and figuring out what their identity is. [Their] identity has been laid out pretty clearly over the last few years, and now they have to figure all of that out with a few new guys. And they’ve done a great job doing that.

“We’ve got a good football team, though. There’s no doubt we have improved tremendously from last year.”

Henigan agreed, adding that this has always been an important game for the Denton community and that the Broncos always find ways to give Ryan fits every time they play.

“This is the original rivalry,” Henigan said. “It’s a big game for us and a lot of people. There’s generally a big crowd, and I have no doubt that this will be a really good environment for everyone on Thursday night.”

The Broncos sure would love a win to finally validate their hard work. Three devastating losses to Lake Dallas, Saginaw Chisholm Trail and The Colony have Denton mired in an 11-game losing streak dating back to last year’s 1-9 finish. Furthermore, the Broncos’ last win over Ryan was in 1999. They lost last year’s meeting 41-0.

Meanwhile, Ryan has already beaten No. 5 Longview 40-7, then bounced back from the loss to Guyer with a 28-10 win over Frisco Reedy in the district opener last week.

This year’s meeting is intriguing given that both offenses have been predominately run-heavy through the first three weeks of the season. That sets up an interesting battle of one-upmanship between Denton’s Coco Brown and Ryan’s Kalib Hicks. Through three games, Brown and Hicks are the Nos. 1 and 3 rushers, respectively, among Dallas-Fort Worth area running backs. Brown has 615 yards rushing and Hicks enters Thursday with 467 yards.

The biggest difference is in touchdowns, with Hicks finding the end zone five times compared to Brown’s two scores. Hicks is coming off a 209-yard, two touchdown performance last week against Frisco Reedy.

Brown rushed for 203 yards and a score in the loss to The Colony.

“[Brown] is such a great player,” Henigan said. “He’s the guy who makes it all go. Sure, they have others who do a good job, but he’s the guy. We have to make sure we stop him.”

Ryan has had no problems shutting down opposing running backs this season, giving up an average of 59.6 yards per game this season behind a defensive front that includes Mason Davis (Army), MarQuice Hill II, Michael Gee and Rovante Blowe.

Linebacker Anthony Hill Jr. has also been a nuisance for opposing offenses, adding a 72-yard interception return for a touchdown last week. If running the football proves to be tough sledding on Thursday, Miller said he feels confident in guys like Tristan Strange, Bryce Ashbaugh and Jason Smith in the passing game.

All three have combined for 194 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

“Everyone focuses on Coco, but we’re finding ways to spread the ball around,” Miller said. “Coco could go carry it 45 times a game, but we’ve also got three other guys out on the perimeter who can get first downs or take it deep.”

Henigan said one thing is for sure: Both teams are looking for ways to improve and are as hungry as ever to win.

“There’s been a whole lot of games won by playing great defense, not allowing turnovers, running the football, being opportunistic in the passing game and being sound in the kicking game,” Henigan said. “The last few years, we’ve been this high-flying deal, but we are still navigating who we are. Denton always gives us fits, but the good news is that we are getting better every week right now. And if we keep doing that, good things will happen.”

STEVE GAMEL can be reached at 469-360-3611 and via Twitter at @NewspaperSteve.

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