Mustangs bend, but Rams break

By Jeff Nations

STRASBURG — George Mason High School’s defense did plenty of bending against Strasburg in Friday night’s rain-drenched Bull Run District football game.

But when it mattered most, it was the Rams’ offense that did the breaking in a 6-0 Homecoming loss.

Strasburg managed 152 yards of total offense, which doesn’t sound great, but still was enough to dominate possession against the sputtering Mustangs’ single-wing attack. George Mason had just 96 yards of offense — none passing — and standout running back D’Montae Noble had a pedestrian night with only 79 rushing yards.

There was more to it than that, though. Strasburg (2-4, 0-3 Bull Run) committed four turnovers in the game, including two costly interceptions in the red zone as the Mustangs held on for the hard-earned shutout.

“That’s been our sticking point all year long — our defense has played well,” Strasburg coach Mark Roller said. “It’s our offense sputters at times. When you get the ball in the red zone, you’ve got to be able to get some points out of it. Certainly tonight you weren’t going to kick any field goals, but you had a chance to score.”

Strasburg turned the ball over on its first three possessions to start the game, miscues that perhaps led to a two-touchdown swing. On their second drive after Strasburg’s Wesley Fauver recovered a fumble by George Mason’s Connor Rhodes at the Mustangs’ 49, the Rams moved the ball 31 yards down to the 18 as quarterback Mark Smoot connected on three straight passes. On his fourth pass, George Mason’s Dustin Green was instead the recipient to kill the drive at the Mustangs’ 9-yard line.

George Mason (4-2, 2-1 Bull Run) went nowhere on its ensuing drive, and punted the ball back to the Rams. That turned out to be a sound strategy for both teams — trying to pin the opposing offense back and wait for the almost inevitable mistake.

It wasn’t long in coming on Strasburg’s next drive, as Mason’s Rhodes atoned for his earlier fumble by stepping in front of a Mark Smoot pass and racing 47 yards for a touchdown with 7:52 left in the first half. Strasburg’s Ryan Smoot blocked the extra point try, leaving the Mustangs with a 6-0 lead.

The Rams came up short on another promising drive near the end of the first half after forcing another punt. Starting at the Mason 49, the Rams chipped away as Mark Smoot connected with Colt Cowgill on a 6-yard pass, then hit Matt Clutter for an 11-yard completion and a 7-yard strike to move the ball down to the Mustangs’ 28 with time for one more play. It went nowhere, as George Mason’s Davis Hagigh caught Mark Smoot in the backfield for a sack that ended the half.

“I think we bent but we didn’t break,” George Mason coach Tony Green said. “It’s a tough field. They’ve got a lot of weapons and they’re very well coached, so what you’ve got to do is hope you’re in the right call and make sure you play it well. That kid [Ryan Smoot] is a pretty good player. The quarterback [Mark Smoot] is a pretty good player. So we were trying to match up with our schemes, try to give them different coverages, try to get a rush on them because his footing wasn’t good, either.”

Strasburg tried to keep the Mustangs honest by attacking the middle with running back Colton Funk (20 carries for 41 yards), but the Rams knew the passing game was their best chance to move the ball. Mark Smoot was 16-for-28 passing for 128 yards, but also had three interceptions.

“That was kind of our game plan, to be able to throw it on them,” Roller said. “We did to an extent. We had two errant passes there, and it just comes back to get you. But all in all, I thought Mark threw well tonight in the conditions that he had.”

The second damaging interception came in the third quarter. Strasburg’s opening possession stalled at the Mason 38, and Roller elected to try and pin the Mustangs back deep in their own territory. It worked perfectly, as Cowgill’s punt went out of bounds at the 12 and Mason promptly went three-and-out.

Funk’s 15-yard return on the ensuing punt gave the Rams great field position at the Mason 38. Funk sliced off 11 more yards with three straight runs and Mark Smoot completed two more passes after that, including a 9-yarder to Cowgill for a first down. The Rams picked up more yardage on the next play when the Mustangs were whistled for pass interference, setting Strasburg up at the Mason 8 for first-and-goal.

It all went wrong from there. A bad snap cost Strasburg a down, although Mark Smoot managed to cover it for no loss on the last play of the third quarter. The Rams went backward six more yards on the next play when Funk was thrown for a big loss. Facing third-and-9, Mark Smoot tried to connect with Cowgill in the end zone. Instead, he connected with Dustin Green again. A freshman, Green returned the pickoff 60 yards to stamp out another drive.

Strasburg held again on defense, forcing Mason to turn the ball over on downs at the Rams’ 30 with 9:01 to play. The Rams then mounted a 10-play drive that reached the Mason 29-yard line, but then started going backward once more as Smoot was thrown for a 5-yard loss on a sack, then sacked again on fourth-and-long by Marcellus Piper and Hagigh.

George Mason finally got moving a bit on offense, picking up four first downs over the final 4:56 to run out the clock.

“We’re a reach and a stretch team, and it’s hard to do that in the mud,” Green said. “We’ve got to go back and reevaluate if we can get some more power plays in, but I like what we’re doing offensively. We still had a little success there. We controlled the ball at the end, when it mattered. When it mattered, we had a nice drive.”

Matt Clutter led the Rams with seven catches for 46 yards. Ryan Smoot added four catches for 23 yards and Cowgill had three catches for 34 yards.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>. Follow on Twitter @J_NationsNVD