Close but no cigar

Football locked into No. 2 seed after 14-10 loss to Steele


Paul Tubridy

Wyatt Hayden prepares to pun the ball against Wagner. Hayden punted three times for a net average of 42 yards on Friday.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

It was a defensive struggle for 48 minutes, but in the end Steele emerged with a 14-10 victory and the top seed in Division I.

Against the backdrop of a rare, afternoon football game, a battle for seeding raged. The winning team would play the runner-up in District 28 (likely Madison), while the loser would be forced to play District 28 champion Reagan.

And yet, while the Rangers certainly hoped for a rematch with Madison (they beat the Mavericks 31-6 earlier this season), they couldn’t put up enough points to make that dream a reality.

Both teams missed their share scoring opportunities, as it didn’t take long for two of the better defenses in District 27 to take control of the game. Steele leveraged a perfectly-placed, 37-yard deep ball from Wyatt Begeal to Edmarrion Contreras into a 36-yard field goal attempt, but the ball sailed wide left. 

The Rangers, meanwhile, took a more methodical approach to their first drive, advancing 44 yards on their first 10 plays. But on the next play, defensive back Cruz Untz snagged a Jalen Nutt pass, tapping both feet in bounds to ensure the interception counted. It was the first of four interceptions on the day for Nutt, who entered the game with an unblemished stat line.

Darlington Frasch – who delivered a sensational performance – brought down Begeal for a 1-yard loss to kick off the ensuing drive. But the Knights fired back in a big way, as Kameron Regis took a dump-off pass 77 yards to the house. All of a sudden, it was 7-0 midway through the first quarter.

A few drives later, the Rangers made their way to the Steele 6-yard line, but the Knights’ defense held fast, forcing a 19-yard field goal. Austin Hosier split the uprights to cut the lead to 7-3, a score which held through the end of the first half.

The Rangers received the second-half kickoff, and decided to get a little spicy. Hosier consistently hits from 50+ yards in pregame, so with a strong wind at his back, coach Larry Hill sent him out for a 51-yard attempt. But there was an issue in the exchange, and he never got a good handle (foot-le?) on the ball. The kick fell short and wide left, his second miss of the season.

Steele took over at their own 36-yard line, but their path to the Ranger end zone became much easier after Wyatt Begeal ripped off a 56-yard run on the right sideline. He would’ve gone all the way, but David DeHoyos made his second touchdown-saving tackle of the afternoon. (The first was at the end of the first half, when he and Blake Bowman stopped Josh Farher from scoring on a play designed to run the clock.) It didn’t matter, though, as Farher scored, untouched, from the Smithson Valley 10-yard line. 14-3, Steele.

Late in the third quarter, the Rangers maneuvered back into Steele territory. On 4th-and-9, Nutt delivered a bullet to Will Ford, who snuck behind the defense and turned his catch-and-run opportunity into 31 yards and a touchdown. It was a key conversion for the Rangers, who punted or threw an interception on seven of their 10 possessions. 

Should they have gone for two instead of kicking the extra point? A four-point deficit is essentially the same as a five-point deficit, but a three-point lead is just a field goal away. This conservative play calling would come back to bite the Rangers on the next possession.

Up just four points with over a quarter left to play, Steele’s offense stalled out. It was a more common sight to see the Steele offense punting from inside their own 30-yard line (four times) than crossing midfield (three times), but what they did was enough. Their last three possessions were solely focused on running the clock.

The Rangers still needed points against a stout Steele defense, though. On their first possession in the fourth quarter, they managed to reach the Steele 13-yard line, before a two-yard rush set up 4th-and-4. Because they kicked an extra point earlier, the offense was forced to go for it, and Nutt threw his second interception of the game into the end zone.

The defense forced a quick three-and-out to give the offense the ball at midfield, but on 2nd-and-16, Nutt threw interception No.3, this one over the middle to John Wayne Player of the Game Christian Garza. 

At this point, with 90 seconds left in the game, fans began pouring out the exits. The Rangers had all three of their timeouts left, but the fans had had enough of this cold, wet, low-scoring game.

Those who stayed got to see another shot at scoring. The defense forced a three-and-out in under a minute, but their full-house punt block attempt failed, and the coverage team downed the punt at the Smithson Valley 6-yard line with 21 seconds left.

After nearly getting caught in bounds, Zack McDonald lateraled the ball to Travis McCracken, who advanced one yard from the line of scrimmage (and, more importantly, got out of bounds). With the clock under 20 seconds and 93 yards to go, Nutt heaved the ball deep to a streaking, effectively triple-covered receiver. Defensive back Daveon Hook snagged it and was shoved out at the Smithson Valley 3-yard line, ensuring that Nutt’s fourth interception would not end the game.

Beagle took a knee to end the game, putting a cap on the Rangers’ worst loss this season.

Steele’s defense was able to dominate the Ranger offense because they shut down three key components: handoffs, designed quarterback runs and deep shots. Stopping the run game is easier said than done, but when the short-to-intermediate passing game is neglected, linebackers don’t have to worry about coverage as much.

McDonald had arguably his best game through the air, catching five passes on good efficiency for the first time this season. And a lot of those catches came on shorter throws, as he finished with just 29 yards receiving. But many of Nutt’s incompletions came on deep passes to double-covered receivers – throws which, if not perfectly placed, result in interceptions.

The simplest way to understand this game is by looking at where each team’s offensive drives ended. Ignoring drives that ended with the close of a half or a scoring attempt (each team had three scores/missed field goals), the numbers are incredibly polarized. Five of seven such Ranger drives ended in Steele territory, and one of the two that didn’t was Nutt’s desperation heave. And yet, somehow, all seven of those drives ended in a punt or interception. Meanwhile, Steele finished all six of their criteria-fitting possessions in their own territory, including two punts from inside their own 20-yard line and four from inside their own 30.

Next week’s game at Judson could’ve been a de facto district championship. But this Friday’s loss locks the Rangers into their playoff seeding, and renders next week’s contest mathematically meaningless.

That game will take place on Dec. 4 at Rutledge Stadium. After that, it’s on to the playoffs, in a showdown with geographic rival Reagan.