A war of extension

Rangers, Thunderbirds stretch selves thin in overtime clash

Jakob+Cernohous+drops+back+during+a+preseason+scrimmage.+Cernohous+played+well+in+relief+of+the+injured+Jalen+Nutt.

Parker Maroney

Jakob Cernohous drops back during a preseason scrimmage. Cernohous played well in relief of the injured Jalen Nutt.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

It was a battle for legacy, a battle for the playoffs, but even moreso, it was a battle to win the day.

And, after four quarters and a tense overtime period, Wagner won that war, 27-24.

Before the season began, the race for fourth place in a loaded district 27-6A appeared to be threefold: New Braunfels, who has one of its best teams in years; Smithson Valley, a longtime power with a lot of roster turnover; and Wagner, defending 5A state quarterfinalists recently realigned into the much tougher class 6A.

Through two weeks, the Unicorns and Rangers held two wins apiece, best in the division, as the Thunderbirds sat idle. Without any preseason games to adjust to the elevated levels of competition, they were expected to struggle out the gate. 

And yet it’s those very same Thunderbirds who lead the pack, sitting at 1-0 after their triple-option offense upset the Rangers, handing them their third season-opening loss since 2017. Meanwhile, the Thunderbirds remain undefeated in district play since that same season. 2017, of course, being the last time these teams shared a district.

Both teams came out of the gates with a big disadvantage. Wagner’s was their relative lack of class 6A experience; the last time they played Smithson Valley, current starting quarterback Isaiah Williams was in middle school. And the lack of a normal preseason certainly didn’t help.

The Rangers, meanwhile, were suffering through some injury issues. Wide receivers Garrett Brooks, Kyler Clarke and WIll Strachan, right tackle Braden Dornburg and linebacker Chase Barker all missed the game after injuries in previous weeks. Unfortunately, that number would only climb.

The game began with a few big stops for the defenses. The Rangers won the coin toss and elected to receive, but that would be their biggest victory for a couple drives. The Jalen Nutt-Gabe Hoskins two-man game picked up one first down, the team turned the ball over on fourth-and-2 after a weird snap issue, which gave Wagner the ball on their own 26-yard line.

Meanwhile, Wagner’s vaunted rushing offense apparently saw their first class 6A drive as the perfect opportunity to rush for -6, -1 and -11 yards, respectively. The last two tackles were credited to Trey Moore, including a forced fumble; he was a dominant force all night, showing off for the University of Kansas scout whom Moore may or may not have known was in attendance.

The Thunderbirds’ poor punt coverage, coupled with multiple penalties on the kick, gave the Rangers the ball all the way up at the 6-yard line. But the defense held firm, rebuffing Hoskins’ and Travis McCracken’s attempts at scoring. The offense settled for a chip-shot field goal, which seemed perfectly reasonable considering the high likelihood of a game with only a handful of possessions per team. (Including overtime, both teams finished with 12 possessions.)

The Wagner offense, excited by their goal line stand, kicked it into gear with a vengeance. Their first five rushes combined for 35 yards, and the sixth gained 29 yards before an illegal procedure penalty kicked them back five yards. A rare pass from Williams resulted in his tight end getting absolutely nuked by cornerback Cooper Douglass. Douglass was called for targeting on that play, and proceeded to miss the rest of the game with an injury to his shoulder area, which was later diagnosed as a broken clavicle.

Williams scored a touchdown on that drive, but his kicker missed the extra point. Which is all fine and dandy for the team rocking navy until they realize that defensive holding means a re-kick. But rather than go for one, Wagner doubled it, and as the saying goes, ‘You can’t stop a triple-option team on the goal line.’ And so the Thunderbirds took an 8-0 lead on yet another carry from Williams, who finished the game with over 150 all-purpose yards.

A penalty – there were a lot of those – pushed the Rangers back to their own 8-yard line. Jalen Nutt took the first down snap, cocked his arm back to throw, and suddenly the ball was in the air. Vertically. After popping out of Nutt’s hands, the ball was scooped up on the goal line by the Thunderbirds, who allowed LJ Butler to punch the ball in. Butler, an all-state running back and two-time 2,000-yard rusher, only managed 49 yards on 12 carries. But he contributed when it counted: a touchdown there, a few first downs and… well, I’ll let you keep reading.

A pair of two-and-outs later, the Rangers earned another possession late in the first half. Down two touchdowns, a score would be ideal. But the passing game apparently disagreed. On third down, Zack McDonald, who led the team in targets, couldn’t haul in a jump ball on a curl route. Then, Nutt threw what appeared to be a perfect deep ball to Maverick Freeland in the end zone. But Freeland let it go over his head to a diving McDonald; it was a perfect pass to the nine route, but thrown too far for the deep crosser to catch up. 

Leading 15-3, Wagner kneeled to close out the half.

A Trey Moore sack spoiled their first drive, but that play was quickly forgotten, as Nutt left the field with an apparent left ankle injury (probably a sprain) after the drive’s first play. Nutt played exceptionally well against Harker Heights and Madison, struggled Friday, rushing for six yards on 13 attempts and completing none of his four passes. He came back in a drive later for a designed run, but aside from that, his night was over. 

Fortunately, though, backup quarterback Jakob Cernohous has a live arm, and he may have figured out how to use it. He also earned the coaching staff’s trust early, lofting a touchdown pass to Freeland in the flats. The big wideout turned upfield and easily scored from seven yards out, and Austin Hosier’s extra point made it a one-score game.

The defense forced another punt, on another takeover drive by Moore: two straight tackles for loss, and involved in a third. 

Cernohous set up shop on the Smithson Valley 23-yard line, and completed a 7-yard curl to McDonald. He ceded the position back to Nutt for a designed run, but played the rest of the game after that. And the limited time he played was quite impressive; he consistently dropped dimes into the baskets of his receivers… though without much ultimate success. On this drive, that meant two dropped deep balls, both of which would’ve been touchdowns, and a third in which McDonald was injured on a blatant missed pass interference call – the defensive back pulled him down from behind by his legs before the ball’s arrival. He came back in for a few plays down the stretch, but wasn’t targeted again.

A forced fumble, recovered at the Wagner 33-yard line, gave the Rangers their best chance to take the lead since, well, the previous drive. A penalty – sensing a pattern here? – and some impressive contact balance by Hoskins and McCracken set up the former for an untouched, 11-yard touchdown rush on a draw play. Cernohous slowly rolled to his right and hit Freeland in stride to bring the lead to three points.

They say small numbers are reserved for playmakers. Well, defensive tackle no. 3 Diego Hamilton certainly fits that mold, as he brought down Williams on fourth-and-7 to flip the field. Since Wagner only had five minutes and one timeout remaining, all the Rangers had to do was run out the clock. It worked at first, as Hoskins made some nice runs, but Cernohous’ third-down, potentially game-sealing end zone shot again fell through the hands of one of his receivers. A field goal made it a six-point game with precisely 2 ½ minutes to go. And yet, despite Wagner’s lack of a passing attack, Murphy’s Law always picks opportune times to strike.

The visiting crowd exploded when Camden Egli was flagged on a deep shot to the end zone, not because it wasn’t a penalty but out of frustration, as even a live viewing of that play reveals a less-blatant version of the previously-uncalled McDonald penalty. Just two plays later, Williams tossed a 13-yard touchdown pass to Matthew Sam, to even the game up at 21-all with an NBA shot clock to play. Whispers rustled through the crowd: ‘We need to block this kick.’ ‘Wouldn’t it be incredible if we blocked that kick.’

And you know, that’s the funny thing about sports, is it makes the impossible, possible, and what’s possible now is so incredible. All of that to say…

They blocked the kick.

Overtime is a different animal than regulation. The rules are very similar to college, where each team starts at their opponent’s 25-yard line. The Rangers mustered a 22-yard field goal, then held Wagner to one of their own.

Or so they thought.

Rather than send out the kicking unit, Wagner left in their offense. Convert and live, fail and die. It was that simple. On fourth-and-2 from the 5-yard line, WIlliams burst up the left side for four yards. Remember that quote?  ‘You can’t stop a triple-option team on the goal line’? So did LJ Butler, who in one instant rushed for a yard, a touchdown and a season-opening win.

The Rangers left that game with more casualties than their ego and record. Nutt’s ankle injury was enough to sideline him for the game, and although Cernohous played well, starting quarterbacks play bigger roles than solely their on-field production. Receivers Brooks (leg), McDonald, Clarke and Strachan (wrist) and right tackle Braden Dornburg (lol) all missed at least some, if not all, of the game. The defense’s health, too, was ravaged: top defensive tackle Luke Seminaro went down early, as did Douglass and fellow cornerback Noah Flores. Trainers initially thought that safety David De Hoyos broke his arm. That’s nine starters rendered unplayable by way of injury; an absurd figure.

In terms of postseason implications, well, it doesn’t look great for the Rangers. Beating the cellar-dwellars (South San, East Central) and fellow contender New Braunfels are musts. Beating at least one of Judson, Clemens or Steele will likely become a necessity. The path to the playoffs just became significantly harder.

This is a team racked with injuries, but against a rock-solid Wagner team, their resiliency showed. And though there was no victory for them on Friday night, the experience should set them up nicely heading into the meat of district play.