Ranger Shuffle-ing into the playoffs

Football upsets rival Judson to close out regular season


Ari Calderon

The offense looks to the sideline for the play. The Rangers put up their second-highest point total this season against rival Judson on Friday.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

Football walked into Rutledge Stadium Friday on a mission. Rival Judson entered the game with just a single home loss in the previous six years: in 2017, the Rockets lost 40-37 in overtime to, guess who, Smithson Valley.

And though it ended in regulation, the Rangers’ 35-32 victory Friday had all the marks of an all-time game: big plays, elite performances and a final score that wasn’t safe until the final whistle blew.

Before the game, Smithson Valley head coach Larry Hill’s goal was to ”take away their (Judson’s) one-play drives.” How did that go? Well, on the second play of the game, Judson running back De’Anthony Lewis broke off a 77-yard touchdown run, shrugging off multiple would-be tacklers and outrunning everyone else.

Not to be outdone, cornerback/returner Noah Flores and the Smithson Valley special teams unit returned the ensuing kickoff 56 yards to the Judson 32-yard line. Five plays and a 15-yard penalty on Judson later, quarterback Jalen Nutt punched it in from the Judson 3-yard line. Tie game.

The Rangers went for a surprise onside kick next, but it didn’t work. Thanks to a roughing the passer penalty on a would-be turnover on downs, Judson worked a 10-play drive, led by quarterback Michael Burroughs and his 38-yard run off zone read. They proceeded to run seven plays in the red zone, getting as close as the Smithson Valley 7-yard line, before settling for a 28-yard field goal.

Judson tried an onside kick of their own, which backfired thanks to linebacker Darlington Frasch, as the former running back returned the kick to the Judson 38-yard line. It was the second Ranger drive to start inside the Judson 40-yard line, and the second to end in a touchdown, as a 9-yard snag by wide receiver Maverick Freeland set up a 10-yard touchdown scamper by Nutt.

At this point, it was 14-10, Smithson Valley leading, with nearly two minutes remaining in the first quarter. The Rangers were on pace to win 67 to 48 at that point, a final score the football world hasn’t seen since Southern Durham High School (N.C.) beat Cleveland High School (N.C.) in November 2014.

But Judson broke the scoring streak. A 13-play drive that stretched into the second quarter was hindered by 42 negative penalty yards, including an unsportsmanlike conduct flag on Burroughs for throwing the ball at linebacker Toby West following a sack. The Rockets were penalized seven times for 88 yards in this game, double the penalty yardage of the Rangers (four penalties, 43 yards).

The Ranger offense, starting their third drive in Judson territory thanks to a 15-yard chop block penalty on the Rockets’ punt coverage team, was stopped for the first time all game. On the Judson 39-yard line, they attempted to convert on 4th-and-7, but Freeland caught the ball short of the sticks and was immediately tackled.

The Rockets made quick work of their possession, as 71-yard drive was capped by a 27-yard rush by Lewis and a 37-yard keeper by Burroughs, who scored his lone rushing touchdown of the night. Just like that, the Rockets took their third lead of the game.

For the first time all night, the Rangers started in their own territory. Early in the drive, the referees missed a late shove by the Rockets. But rather than shove back, the Rangers had a better retaliation in mind. On the ensuing play, Nutt launched a 45-yard bomb to Freeland, who positioned himself perfectly before bullying his man into submission and walking into the end zone. It was Freeland’s only touchdown of the night, but his final stat line (8 catches, 124 yards, 1 touchdown) shows how critical he was to the team’s success.

A Frasch sack on second down forced the Rockets into a three-and-out, giving the Rangers the ball at the 50-yard line. But their fourth-down conversion attempt, an overthrown deep shot to Freeland, left Judson with three seconds on the clock around midfield. Lewis picked up 34 yards, bringing his first-half total to 186 yards rushing, but the prevent defense held strong, and the Rangers entered halftime with a 21-17 lead.

It would’ve been easy to fold under the expectations, but the Rangers opened up the second half with their most consistent drive up to that point. Freeland caught a couple of passes for 18 yards, wide receiver Will Strachan caught a tipped pass for 10 yards and wide receiver Zack McDonald made a huge possession catch deep in the red zone. On the next play, Nutt legged it into the end zone for his third touchdown rush of the night. Suddenly, it was a two-possession game. 

Judson’s Anthony Evans caught a 47-yard ball around deep in Ranger territory, but on 3rd-and-goal from the Smithson Valley 3-yard line, Frasch jarred the ball loose on a quarterback keeper. Blake Bowman, who dropped an interception on the first play of the game, made amends by falling on the ball at the 15-yard line.

The Rockets forced a quick punt, but the ball ricocheted off one of their gunners’, and long snapper Ryan Hakes scooped it up in Judson territory. The Rangers made the most of their second chance, as Nutt connected with tight end Dylan Domel to convert on 4th-and-7 and running back Travis McCracken sprinting 30 yards upfield for a touchdown.

The Rangers’ three-score lead, paired with a complete second-half momentum shift, led many experts to call the game after McCracken’s touchdown. But the Rockets still had quite a bit of “fuel left in their tank,” to borrow a relevant colloquialism.

Four plays into Judson’s next drive, Lewis rumbled 44 yards upfield for a touchdown, narrowing the gap to 35-24. Judson recovered their onside kick, giving the offense a chance to further narrow the lead. They did, as wide receiver Davion Wilson “Mossed” Flores for 14 yards and a touchdown. The successful two-point conversion narrowed Smithson Valley’s lead to just three points; the Rockets had just scored 15 points in under four minutes.

With 7:46 remaining, the Rangers set out on a quest to put the game away – running as much clock as possible in the process. But the Rocket defense forced two negative plays to start the possession, giving the Rangers a 3rd-and-18 on their own 22-yard line. Conventional wisdom would’ve called for a run play or screen to run time off the clock, then a punt. But Hill bucked those conventional trends and called for a deep shot to Freeland, who was on fire all night. Nutt delivered a beautiful pass, and Freeland managed to haul in the 37-yard bomb over his defender.

With a fresh set of downs and prime position in Judson territory, the Rangers began to run out the clock. Nine runs (and a lot of time) later, they found themselves in a 4th-and-11 on the Judson 15-yard line. But rather than take a chip-shot field goal to go up six points, the offense dialed up a block-and-release route to Domel. The throw was a bit behind him, but he caught it and stretched all the way out, and it looked as if he may have gotten the 11 yards. The chains, though, showed that he was about a foot short.

The Rangers still achieved their goal, though, running over seven minutes off the clock and pinning the Rockets on their own 4-yard line.

With just over 40 seconds left to play and no timeouts remaining, Judson ran a draw play to Lewis, who tried in vain to get out of bounds before fumble-lateraling the ball to an offensive lineman, who was promptly tackled three yards behind the line of scrimmage. It took about 20 seconds to get the next snap off, a deep shot broken up by Flores. With seven seconds left, Burroughs settled for a short gain to Evans. And with one second on the clock, on what was effectively 1st-and-86, safety Blake Bowman made the biggest play of his life.

Bowman’s interception, his fourth this season, sealed the game for the Rangers. The math doesn’t change – the Rangers remain the No. 2 seed in Division I, and are still slated for a first-round matchup with Reagan – but they did spoil Judson’s bid at an undisputed district championship (they’ll now have to share it with Steele). More importantly, the Rangers gained something mathematically unquantifiable: momentum, and the knowledge and confidence that they are on the same level as some of the top teams in the state.

Freeland finished with eight catches for 126 yards receiving and a touchdown and Nutt compiled 262 total yards and four touchdowns. Lewis paced the Rockets’ rushing attack with 258 yards and two touchdowns. But arguably the game’s top performance didn’t come from a player; it came from Hill on his way into the locker room. Ladies and gentlemen, the Ranger Shuffle.

The Rangers will play District 28-6A champion Reagan in their bi-district playoff game at 7:30 on Friday.