Special teams woes doom Rams at home

By Jeff Nations

STRASBURG — The matching grins on the faces of Madison County quarterback James Graves and wide receiver Ashton Weakley provided an unmistakable clue about Friday night’s Bull Run District matchup against Strasburg.

For Graves, who passed for 325 yards and a pair of touchdowns, it was a very special night. Weakley, who hauled in nine catches for 219 yards and a touchdown, had a special night, too. Strasburg’s special teams were anything but, allowing the Mountaineers to recover three onside kicks and dominate possession in a 31-27 victory.

“We’ve got to get out of the way of it,” Strasburg coach Mark Roller said. “When linemen are up front, they can’t try to catch those line drives that are coming right at them, and we didn’t do that. We’ve done it to people in the past, and it’s worked. They did it to us tonight, and it worked for them.”

Madison County (3-5 overall, 2-3 Bull Run) nearly turned its first recovered onside kick into points late in the second quarter after Randall Byers’ 1-yard touchdown run had pulled the Mountaineers to within 21-14 with 55 seconds to play in the half. Starting at the 50-yard line, the Mountaineers got down to Strasburg’s 23 before Dylan Berry missed on a 41-yard field goal attempt.

Whether that was a lesson learned — or not, according to Madison County coach Stuart Dean — the Mountaineers made good use of Berry’s knuckling kickoff twice more in the second half.

Strasburg (3-5, 1-4) nearly regained that lost momentum on its first drive of the second half, but Mark Smoot’s fourth-down pass to the end zone from 28 yards away was dropped to turn the ball over on downs.

Graves needed just five plays to strike, connecting with Samuel Taylor on a 37-yard touchdown strike to tie the game at 21-21 with 5:31 to go in the third quarter.

Madison then came up with its second onside kick, this time at its own 47. Nine plays later, the Mountaineers had their first lead when Berry connected on a 23-yard field goal.

“We didn’t plan any of those onside kicks,” Dean said. “That’s just the way the kicker kicked — it worked well, we hit it in some good spots and we took advantage of it.”

Immediately after Berry’s field goal, he bunched another line-drive kick that bounced off a Strasburg player and was covered by Madison’s Richard Neighbors at the Strasburg 48. It took nine plays, but the Mountaineers again cashed in on Graves’ 1-yard touchdown run on third down with 9:05 to play.

The Rams finally covered one of Berry’s dangerous kickoffs after that, and Strasburg quarterback Mark Smoot went to work after a long layoff. He completed five passes on a seven-play, 62-yard drive that ended with Colton Funk’s 16-yard touchdown catch. Smoot gave a spectacular effort on the play, stepping up into the pocket and getting the pass to Funk across the middle despite having a Madison defender draped across his shoulder.

Strasburg’s touchdown cut Madison’s lead to 31-27 with 6:20 to play. The Mountaineers managed to burn nearly three minutes off the game clock on their next possession before turning it over on downs at the Rams’ 28 with 2:46 to play.

The Rams’ chances took a hit when Madison’s Andrew Allee sacked Smoot for a 5-yard loss, and the junior quarterback was also flagged for intentional grounding. That tacked on another five yards and a loss of down. On fourth down, Smoot hit Funk across the middle but Madison’s Bray Lamb jarred the ball loose.

From there, the Mountaineers ran out the clock.

The Rams came out smoking in the first quarter, driving 72 yards on their opening possession for a 10-yard touchdown pass from Smoot to Justin Carr.

The Mountaineers had a quick answer, as Graves found Weakley with man coverage down the right sideline for a 65-yard touchdown bomb.

“Weakley, over the top,” Graves said. “He’s really, really quick. He gets open.”

That catch was one of three for Weakley that went for 35 yards or more.

“They’re a good combination,” Dean said. “They’ve been working for a couple years. James is just very, very comfortable with Ashton out there. They made some good decisions tonight on their routes and stuff.”

Strasburg couldn’t get going after Weakley’s touchdown, and Madison nearly took the lead on its next possession until the Rams’ Colt Cowgill came up with an interception at the Strasburg 7 to kill the drive.

The Rams were quick to capitalize, as Mark Smoot found his brother Ryan for a 78-yard touchdown pass. Ryan Smoot caught the ball across the middle, made his way to the right sideline and just stayed in bounds before turning it upfield for the go-ahead score.

The Smoot-to-Smoot connection struck again on Strasburg’s next possession, this time for a 1-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal to put the Rams up 21-7 with 5:03 left in the first half.

After that, the momentum took a decided turn for the Mountaineers.

“It was really good for us to have some good things happen,” Dean said. “They came out at the beginning of the game and just marched the ball down the field. We were playing on our heels, so we needed some momentum shifts. Our kickoff team really got that for us.”

That, and Graves’ passing night. The junior completed 16 of 28 passes and kept the Rams’ defense on the field for long stretches.

“You couldn’t stop some of those balls that the Graves kid was throwing,” Roller said. “He placed them in there perfect. We had good coverage. They just made the plays.”

Mark Smoot had a solid night for the Rams, completing 13 of 19 passes for 169 yards and four touchdowns. Funk finished with 95 yards rushing. It wasn’t enough to make up for Strasburg’s special teams woes.

“We’ll have to revisit our special teams next week,” Roller said.

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