Rangers prepare for ultimate test in Lake Travis

With the New Braunfels win on the road Nov. 9, junior wide receiver Draylund Radebaugh and his teammates sealed their spot in the playoffs.

Nathan Canales

With the New Braunfels win on the road Nov. 9, junior wide receiver Draylund Radebaugh and his teammates sealed their spot in the playoffs.

Jackson Posey, Staff Writer

Just to clear the air: this game is not a foregone conclusion.

A loss seems to be the general consensus among the student body, but the truth is far from it. In fact, if any underdog can take down a power like Lake Travis, it will be these Rangers, a stout defensive bunch who run it up the throats of their opponents.

Junior running back Jacob Forton had a breakout performance (7/79/1) against New Braunfels, while the defense limited the Unicorns’ typically serviceable rushing attack to just 59 yards and a fumble. Defensive back Jalen Nutt flashed good coverage skills and came up clutch with an interception on the Ranger one-yard line, while freshman wide receiver Kasen Wells put soft hands and good route running on display. He single-handedly had more catches (3) than the rest of the team combined (2).

But it isn’t all sunshine and roses for the Rangers, especially on offense. Quarterback Levi WIlliams only attempted 11 passes (completing 5 for 54 yards) while rushing for an 48 yards on his 14 tries. Sophomore running back Darlington Frasch again played the role of workhorse with 13 carries and a touchdown, but could only muster 20 yards. The Unicorns’ rush defense was good, but not that good. Furthermore, despite the big play from Nutt, the pass defense struggled all night, allowing receivers like Ethan Duliban (6/89/0) to pick up big play after big play. As the Philadelphia Eagles have demonstrated at the NFL level, even a supremely talented front seven needs strong secondary play, and this one clearly isn’t playing to its potential.

This is a team that didn’t seem completely playoff-ready to start out the year, opening with losses to Midland Lee, San Antonio Madison, and Clemens, despite showing strains of excellence. But after a string of wins, and victories in five of six to close out the year, the team is feeling good.

“Our team chemistry got a lot better,” Nutt said. “We became closer once we started to click.”

Defensive end Trey Witcher credited the comeback to the team’s resilience and hard work, which he says were much improved as the season went on.

“The self-determination of the team [changed],” he said. “We didn’t have our priorities straight to start the season. After the loss to Madison, we had a team meeting and it turned everything around. Practice was upbeat and more attentive [on] the goals ahead of us. 1-0 each week.”

Witcher said the team felt good going into the game, calling the team “confident. Nutt echoed that sentiment, saying that the team “most definitely” feels confident.

But despite all the bold statements, Lake Travis is a formidable foe. Arguably the best opponent the Rangers have had to play all year, the Cavaliers are a bonafide football powerhouse. Aside from a loss to 9-1 Austin Westlake, they are undefeated and have only put up under five touchdowns twice – a loss to 9-1 Austin Westlake, and a 14-0 victory vs Mansfield Summit that was cancelled partway through the second quarter.

The scoring is not a fluke. Cavalier quarterback Hudson Card has lit up opposing defenses on the way to a 153/1,924/28 slash line with just two interceptions, while tacking on 429 yards and seven more scores on the ground. The 2020 four-star quarterback (#3 dual-threat) is a top-100 prospect in his class, receiving offers from Alabama, Texas and others. He’ll have plenty of help on the ground from a team that has totaled 1,842 rushing yards, with a trio of sophomore tailbacks leading the way. Running backs Weston Stephens (65/459/9), Marcelo Alanis (58/408/2) and  Wesley Erwin (25/239/2) act as perfect complements to the Cavaliers’ passing game.

And what a passing game it is. An injury-riddled receiving corps has been buoyed by some amazing depth, with just one pass-catcher playing all ten games (defensive back and wide receiver Kyle Eaves, 43/634/9). And then we find wide receiver Garrett Wilson. Wilson’s line of 35/547/9 is impressive, but not necessarily mind-boggling. That is, until you realize the senior had to miss four games because of injury, and he came back to average a staggering 91.2 YPG. Wilson is a five-star recruit, clocking in as the second-ranked recruit in Texas and fifteenth-ranked overall. Sporting offers from more than schools, he has committed Ohio State over the likes of USC, Alabama, Notre Dame, and just about every other major program you can think of. Wilson is a legitimate star in the making, and it will take everything this team has to merely contain him. It still might not be enough. The last time the Rangers played a big-time prospect, Judson four-star defensive tackle Demarvin Leal dominated them, erupting for seven tackles, two tackles for losses and a sack despite consistent double-teams.

However, the Rangers remain unfazed. Nutt says he respects Wilson’s talent, but will “treat [Wilson] like everyone else [he goes] up against.” Witcher said he was prepared to wreak havoc, calling on the D-Line to “create pressure, while also keeping [Card] contained in the pocket, [force him to] make difficult throws with pressure breathing down his neck… Our DBs and LBs will be more than ready to cover their passing game.”

Larry Hill’s squad needs to prove it can beat the best of the best to reach the next level, and with a loss to their only marquee opponent (Converse Judson), the Rangers may prove too inexperienced against high-level competition. The team feels pumped and ready for the biggest game of the year.

“Our coaches prepare us Monday-Friday on what we need to do,” Nutt said.

Witcher added the game plan was “more than amazing,” and this week is the “best week of practice…all season.”

The opponent is formidable, and the stakes are high.

But there is an Achilles heel: the quarterback rush. As previously stated, the Cavaliers have just one loss – to the Austin Westlake Chaparrals. And the reason why they lost was clear as day. In his nine other contests, Chaparral quarterback Taylor Anderson never touched 85 yards rushing. And yet, against a team that is supposedly invincible, he found a chink in the armor. The Cavaliers can’t stop the QB rush. It’s such a simple thing, yet so difficult for an otherwise dominant defensive front to contain. Anderson exploded in that game, finishing with 179 rushing yards and two scores on 20 tries. And just in case you haven’t noticed, the quarterback draw is a major staple of Smithson Valley’s offense. WIlliams toted the rock nearly a hundred times for just under 600 yards and seven touchdowns.

But one man can’t move a mountain. The defense, which has been so good all year, has to unlock the key to stopping a dominant offense. It’s imperative that the wideouts rediscover their hands after a season plagued by drops. And, most importantly, the team needs to play like their season is on the line – which it is. Nutt summed it all up quite nicely:

“The level of play is raised because of the stakes .… it’s do or die.”

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