Rangers’ flaws exposed in 45-21 collapse to Rebels

Friday's game was truly a tale of two halves.

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Rangers’ flaws exposed in 45-21 collapse to Rebels

Jacob Forton takes over running back duties this year.

Jacob Forton takes over running back duties this year.

Casey Casselberry

Jacob Forton takes over running back duties this year.

Casey Casselberry

Casey Casselberry

Jacob Forton takes over running back duties this year.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

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Smithson Valley couldn’t match their first-half production in the last two frames, as the Rangers fell to the Midland Lee Rebels, 45-21.

What began as a duel turned into a murder as the Rebels ran off with the second half after trading blows with Coach Larry Hill’s squad to the tune of 28-21 at halftime.

But it was inexperience and a lack of deep ball coverage that sunk the Rangers’ ship, not just the star power of their opponents. Between the struggles of rookie quarterback Luke Gombert (4/17 for 81 yards, a touchdown and two picks), his receiving corps (nearly a half-dozen drops), and the inability of the defense to stop big plays, the Rangers probably didn’t deserve to be in the game as long as they were.

Despite the aforementioned struggles, it wasn’t all gloom and doom for the Rangers. Their revamped running back room, for one, was their only consistent source of offense all night. With Marc Franco graduated and Darlington Frasch now a linebacker, former fullback Jacob Forton starred in the role of bell cow, putting up 79 yards on 19 carries for two touchdowns. Aiding his cause was converted linebacker Greg Eggleston, who picked up 17 yards on five carries. Their “20 Small” formation, with two backs and no tight ends, was the team’s offensive centerpiece throughout the contest. It worked wonders in the first half, but its success dwindled in the second half, as the Lee defenders learned that basically every rush would be a zone concept off guard. Still, The team put up over a hundred rushing yards, and that should be enough most nights.

The real crux of the team’s offensive struggles wasn’t the running game. It wasn’t the offensive line, either – the unit was stellar for most of the night. No, the real culprit here is the lack of chemistry between Gombert and his receivers, an issue that plagued the team all night. Tight end Chandler Cole hauled in none of his three targets, with a drop and two overthrows. Wideout Maverick Carter caught a 65-yard bomb for a score, but that was his lone score. Eggleston went two for three, but never saw a beautiful throw from Gombert (he turned his other two targets into a combined five yards). Eric Titzman caught one of four balls, and none were necessarily his fault. Forton and Will Ford dropped a ball apiece.

Issues like this will get straightened out. New starters aren’t generally known for their chemistry anyway, and the hostile crowd at Grande Communications Stadium certainly didn’t help things. But the sloppiness extended past the passing game, as well. Forton and defensive back/returner Mason Livingston each had to recover their own fumbles, and Gombert’s picks appeared to be primarily a lack of awareness. Understandable mistakes, but not ones that should ever be repeated, especially if Smithson Valley is truly chasing a “state championship,” Gombert said Thursday.

Luckily, the defense made plenty of splash plays, despite what the scoresheet might indicate. Jalen Nutt and Cullen Betsey made admirable attempts to slow down Rebel WR Loic Fouonji and actually did better than expected on most of their reps. When Nutt went down with a calf cramp – an injury that also plagued LB Tom Zeug – junior Blake Bowman entered the fray as a safety and flashed with some big plays. It’s that type of depth that will keep the defense chugging along even through bigger injuries than what Nutt sustained. Still, the secondary was busted for too many big plays. Yes, Midland Lee is an exceptional offense, but the Rangers still have to deal with juggernauts like Hendrickson, Judson and Steele, and this level of inconsistency will not play any better against other schools.

Fortunately for the secondary, it looks like they’ll have a light burden, as the front seven were dominant for much of the night. A few notable performers were Frasch, who picked up a couple tackles at his new position; Tanner Hobeck, who blew up a run play and picked off a tipped pass; and Trey Moore, who shone to the tune of two sacks, a tackle for loss and a tipped pass (that went straight to Hobeck). Moore called it a “momentum boost” after the game, and he was right: the offense drove 75 yards down the field in two plays to tie up the game in the first quarter after the defensive tandem flipped the script on the Rebels, who up until that point were up 7-0. Mixing between formations allowed Hobeck and Co. to shine, and it helped get them plenty of looks at the tendencies and “pick up on things they did… [and] do what was necessary to get by them,” Moore said.

The game wasn’t nearly as bad as the final score would indicate. But it was a stark reminder that this team is going through plenty of growing pains, and patience will be key. Moore was right – this team does have “great potential.” But it’s up to him and his teammates to batten down the hatches, cut down on mistakes, and work cohesively. Until then, expect the growing pains to grow more painful.

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