Round two

Football prepares (again) for key matchup with New Braunfels


Staff photo

Defensive tackles Luke Seminaro (left) and Jordan Thompson warm up before a game. The defensive line will have its hands full on Thursday against New Braunfels and running back Ryker Purdy (580 yards, 8 touchdowns).

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

Football was scheduled to play rival New Braunfels (3-2, 1-2) three weeks ago, but the coronavirus had other ideas.

Now the game is back on, and its final score could have major ripple effects on the District 27-6A playoff picture.

 The Unicorns’ balanced offensive attack is led by a two-headed monster in the backfield: quarterback Peyton Driggers (777 yards passing, 7 touchdowns) and running back Ryker Purdy (580 yards rushing, 8 touchdowns) have excelled all season.

“It’s hard to say [who’s more dangerous],” Hill said of Driggers and Purdy. “If you can’t stop the run, it’s hard to win at any level. [But] the quarterback’s good with his feet as well. So certainly we’re going to have to take away the run, but … they’ve proven they can [throw the ball, too]. So, we’ll have to mix our looks, and at times be more pass-defense oriented.”

New Braunfels took care of business in two preseason games against subpar opponents, but fell apart in their district opener, a 37-14 home loss to Judson. Driggers and Purdy combined for just 90 total yards and a turnover. Their next game would’ve been against the Rangers.

Since then, though, things have been looking up for the Unicorns. They led Steele 21-14 at the end of regulation, but a penalty gave the Knights an untimed down. A second penalty gave them a third crack at the end zone, which turned into a touchdown, a two-point conversion, and a brutal loss for New Braunfels.

Last week, the Unicorns traveled to Rutledge Stadium and upset Wagner, spoiling their Homecoming game with a 36-19 win. (Wagner, astute fans will remember, beat Smithson Valley earlier this season.) Driggers picked apart the Thunderbird secondary to the tune of 259 yards passing and two touchdowns, and Purdy turned his five touches into 56 yards.

“Well, they’ve just gotten the ball into their playmakers’ hands,” Hill said. “Offensively [it] all flows through the quarterback, but the running game has really come on. They’ve made some big plays up the field, throwing the football, particularly against Wagner. And they also won some 50-50 balls, out-jumped some guys and came away with some catches that were tough, contested.”

The Unicorns are averaging 26.2 points per game this season. Take away the Judson game, and that number jumps to over 29. The Rangers have dominated defensively for much of the season, and this is not a good time for an off night. The offense simply isn’t built to win a shootout.

The Rangers are averaging 37 points per game on the season, but under 10 percent of those points have come on passing touchdowns. Starting quarterback Jalen Nutt has completed 54.9 percent of his throws for 367 yards passing and a touchdown. His backups have combined for two more scores.

“I don’t think anybody’s comfortable with shootouts,” Hill said. “I don’t really think that’s our style, the 50 to 49 game. As far as throwing the ball, we’ve had our ups and downs. Last week was an up. Part of that’s been receivers, part of that’s been the success of the running game. And part of that’s been [the] circumstances of the games … To me, balance is not, ‘how many times are you running?’ Or, ‘how many times are you throwing it?’ It’s more about, do they have to defend all elements of your game? And do they have to worry about every element, every snap? And if that’s the case, really the 60, 40, 50, 50, 70, 30 [points], whatever it ends up being, really doesn’t make any difference. Our receivers have begun to make plays [and] our throwing game has improved. 

“I don’t know that we’re destined to be a 2000 yard throwing team. I don’t know that we really want to be, given the strength [of] our offensive line and the running game. You play to your strengths. But our goal is to score enough to win, and whether that’s [the] kicking game scoring, defense scoring, offense scoring, doesn’t matter to us. But … we’ll have to throw the ball some successfully [Thursday] to win it. Ain’t no doubt.”

Running back Gabe Hoskins (302 yards rushing, 5 touchdowns) will be a game-time decision with a high ankle sprain. And the offensive line will be starting its sixth different configuration in as many games. But wide receiver Will Strachan’s return may offset some of the damage.

Strachan, a former quarterback, missed the first four games of the season after a freak wrist injury cost him a large chunk of time. But he made his return last Thursday, catching three balls for 38 yards – including this play down the field:

The longer he’s back, the better he’ll get.

“We knew he’d be a good player,” Hill said. “So disheartening when that happened … His name is Will, but the thing that has impressed me was his iron will.

“I think he just made up his mind, ‘I’m not going to be [out for] 12 weeks.’ I don’t think any of us guessed that it would only be seven, but he kind of Willed his bone to heal. And he got cleared the day before [the game] and jumped in there and made a couple of nice catches, [including] one one big one down the field … Going into the season, we felt like he’d be one of our top guys, and not having him for four or five ball games was tough.”

Hill called Strachan’s return a “shot in the arm” for a team that has been decimated by injuries. At one point, three key receivers – Strachan, Garrett Brooks and Kyler Clarke – were all out. Brooks and Clarke are still unavailable, but the offense has fought through and performed admirably. But they’ve had to move guys around to find the matchups they need. This week, the team “dusted off” linebacker Darlington Frasch at running back, warming him back up to his old position in case Hoskins is ruled out. 

“It’s hard to say [which team the matchups are in favor of],” Hill said. “They have shown the ability to throw the ball and throw the ball up field, as well as frustrate you with nickel and dime stuff. And we really haven’t played a team that’s been great at that … So I think that’ll be the big key: how do we match up there? And then, I think sometimes when teams throw the ball, you forget about the running game, that’s really been the key to their success, being balanced. [So], can we stop that enough to where they shut that off and just become one-dimensional? And so, I think that’s the challenge.”

That challenge will begin at 7 p.m. Thursday at Ranger Stadium. The game will be streamed live on Rangers Network.