Falcons, Rams meet in pivotal rivalry game

There’s plenty on the line tonight when Strasburg travels to take on Central in the annual clash of two Shenandoah County rivals in the regular-season finale for both teams.

Strasburg, a winner of five straight, is fighting for a chance to host a first-round game in next week’s Region 2A East playoffs. The Falcons, meanwhile, essentially need a win to have any shot at making the Region 3A East’s 16-team field.

The playoff implications only add the importance of the longtime rivalry, but the players from both sides have never really needed much extra motivation for the annual game.

“It’s everything,” Central senior quarterback Sam Barbour said of the rivalry on Wednesday. “From the time playing in Little League, growing up you just grow a relationship with these guys. You’re friends off the field — sometimes — but when you’re on the field it’s game time. We’re excited and we feel prepared to go out there and play a good game.”

Central has dominated the match-up in recent years, but the Falcons will have to find a way to slow down the streaking Rams if they hope to keep that run alive tonight.

Strasburg (6-3, 5-1 Bull Run) is currently in eighth place (20.2 points) in the Virginia High School League Region 2A East playoff power ratings, just ahead of King William (20.1). The top eight teams in each region host in the first round.

To add even more fuel to the proverbial fire, the Rams haven’t beaten Central since 2007 and are 0-7 against the Falcons in that span.

“I’m sure our guys know what’s going on with that, but I think anytime they play Central they want to win,” Rams head coach Mark Roller said. “It’s just happened to be the last couple years we haven’t been able to do that in football. But when it comes down to it, when you get on the field it’s another football game and you’ve got to play it just like another football game. You’ve got to stay within what you’ve practiced and what you’ve worked on all week long. If you get away from that, then bad things happen.”

Central is in a more desperate playoff situation, as the Falcons are almost certain to be in a win or go home scenario. The Falcons are currently 21st (17.1 points) in the Region 3A East power ratings but are only 0.3 points out of 16th place, which is currently occupied by Southampton (17.4).

“We really believe if we win we would be in and if we lose we’re out,” Central head coach Mike Yew said. “…Win or lose we’re going to pick up some points for their six wins. If we lose I just don’t think it will be enough to get us in. If we win we feel like with those 12 rider points it would really have to almost shoot us up there to probably about, we think, like 13 or 14.”

Both Central (4-5, 3-3) and Strasburg are coming off home victories last week. The Falcons scored 20 unanswered points in a come-from-behind, 20-13 win against Madison County. The Rams capped a thrilling 36-28 win over Warren County with a goal-line stop in the final seconds.

Strasburg is averaging 27.9 points and 315.3 yards per game this season, and last week marked the fifth straight game the Rams have scored at least 30 points. The Rams scored three non-offensive touchdowns against Warren County on two kickoff return touchdowns and an interception return.

The Rams’ offense — which Yew called Strasburg’s most balanced unit in a “couple years” — has thrived in the passing game this season behind the left arm of senior quarterback Mark Smoot.

Smoot has completed 117 of 196 passes for 1,729 yards, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions. Smoot has efficiently spread the ball around to three different receivers: Trevin Howard (26 catches, 555 yards, 4 TDs), Noah St. Clair (27 catches, 435 yards, 4 TDs) and Smoot’s twin brother, Ryan (33 catches, 413 yards, 8 TDs).

“As well as they throw the ball I think we’ve just got to confuse [Mark Smoot] some. If we go out there and just line up in straight cover 3 he’s going to pick us apart, and the same thing with straight cover 2,” said Yew, whose defense surrendered a couple big pass plays to Madison County in the first half last week but allowed only 21 yards over the final two quarters.

Rams senior running back Colton Funk has 900 rushing yards and eight touchdowns this season, although he has been battling a high ankle sprain over the last couple of weeks. Funk was in a walking boot at practice on Tuesday and Roller said at the time he wasn’t sure what Funk’s status would be for tonight’s game, although the coach said Tuesday he expected Funk to play.

Funk, who also plays linebacker for the Rams, was able to play defense last week but was limited to just a few carries on offense. His backup, senior Justin Carr — who also handled the kicking duties — is also injured.

Central’s offense found success in the power running game last Friday, as the Falcons made a switch in the second half and ran primarily out of the I-formation with great results. The Falcons rushed for 274 yards in the win in an offensive performance that Yew called an “eye opener” for Central.

Behind a Falcons offensive line that controlled the line of scrimmage, senior running back Hank Hoover led the way on the ground last week with 144 yards on 34 carries and now has 762 rushing yards and seven touchdowns this season.

Barbour has also been an effective runner at quarterback for Central, as he’s carried for 441 yards and a touchdown in addition to his 1,050 yards and six touchdowns passing.

Strasburg’s defense has struggled against the run the season, as the Rams are allowing 217.4 yards on the ground this season.

“We’ve faced some good running backs. That’s part of it. And we’ve faced some big lines — we’re not huge up front on defense. So that’s part of it. You have to give credit to the other teams,” said Ryan Smoot, a defensive end. “But no, we haven’t been great. We’re getting better, so hopefully it will all come together. Hopefully soon.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com