Special teams blunders sink Rams against Luray

Mark Roller

LURAY – Strasburg’s football team headed to Luray on Friday night seeking to avenge a lopsided loss to the Bulldogs in 2017. A pair of decisive special teams plays derailed the Rams’ shot at doing that.

Moments after Strasburg finally seized some momentum with a long touchdown pass from quarterback Chase Hart to Stephen Kloosterman that tied the game midway through the second quarter, Bulldogs sophomore Austin Holloway returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown to reclaim Luray’s lead.

In the waning seconds of the first half, a bad snap on a Strasburg punt attempt deep in its own territory ended with another Luray score, and the Bulldogs turned a 14-point halftime lead into a 35-7 rout with a dominant second half to improve to 2-0 on the season.

“I think that was the deciding factor of the game,” Rams head coach Mark Roller said of his team’s two special teams blunders in the first half. “I mean we played well defensively. We come back, we score, we tie the game up and then kick it back off and let them run it back for a touchdown. That kind of took all the air that we got back in us, just took the air of us.

“Those two special teams plays, they were very crucial in determining the outcome of the game tonight.”

With his team trailing 7-0 in the second quarter, Kloosterman brought the Rams (1-1) to life with a pair of momentum-grabbing plays on consecutive snaps, the first coming when he pulled down an interception on a jump ball at the Strasburg 25-yard line.

The senior hauled in a 75-yard touchdown grab on the next play, making a juggling catch along the Strasburg sideline after Hart’s pass was tipped by a Luray defensive back and racing untouched to even the score at 7-all.

Holloway stunned the Rams moments later when, after initially dropping the ensuing kickoff at the 22, he scooped up the ball and scampered 78 yards for the go-ahead score.

“I think that changed the game,” said Roller, whose team also had a punt blocked in the second half. “We were all energetic there for a little bit and in a matter of seconds it just turned.”

The Bulldogs gained further steam on a bizarre play as the first half was coming to a close.

After being forced into a three-and-out at their own 23, the Rams lined up to punt the ball away and saw the snap sail high over the head of punter Trevor Sager. The junior chased the ball into the end zone, where he retrieved it and made a desperate attempt to kick the ball away with players from both teams bearing down on him. Sager’s kick sailed straight up into the air and Luray’s Hayden Campbell came down with the ball in the end zone for a touchdown that gave the Bulldogs a 21-7 lead with eight seconds left in the half.

Strasburg had a chance to cut into that deficit quickly in the third quarter, as Hart opened the second half with four consecutive pass completions for 51 yards, including three straight to Kloosterman (seven receptions, 144 yards) and an 18-yard pass to Bradley Ferrell that gave the Rams a first down at the Luray 25. Four straight incompletions turned the ball over to the Bulldogs.

“I think if we’d have put the ball in the end zone right there, we had a fighting chance,” Roller said. “That’s what I told the guys at halftime, we just have to score right here to start the third quarter and we put together a great drive but we weren’t able to stick it in the end zone. That took a little bit out of us but we were still able to hang in there.”

Missed opportunities were a theme for Strasburg’s offense, which drove inside the Luray 35-yard line five different times and came away with zero points. Hart threw an interception into double coverage at the goal line on one of those trips and was sacked on fourth down on two others in the first half.

Hart completed 18 of 39 passes for 217 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions while completing passes to six different receivers.

The Rams finished with just 45 yards rushing, and though they abandoned the running game while playing catch-up in the second half, they failed to find consistent yardage on the ground in the first half – gaining 40 yards on 17 attempts (2.4 yards per carry) – when the game was still in reach.

Hart finished as Strasburg’s leading rusher, gaining most of his 33 yards on scrambles out of the pocket. Junior running back Jalen Bray, who broke out for 127 yards against Stonewall Jackson in his first varsity start last week, had just 6 yards on seven carries against Luray.

“Certainly we weren’t able to run it and we knew coming in it was gonna be tough to run, but I didn’t realize it was gonna be that tough,” Roller said. “We just weren’t able to do that, so we had to let Chase throw it a little bit. I mean that becomes a factor when you can’t run the football because you’re one-dimensional then and everybody knows what you wanna do. It’s tough. Jalen just didn’t have anywhere to go. They were able to get their hands on him and that’s all it was. He just couldn’t do anything.”

Luray didn’t have any such problems in its T-formation rushing attack, as the Bulldogs gained all 350 of their offensive yards on the ground in the win. Holloway, who scored three total touchdowns against the Rams, and junior fullback Timothy Trudell each topped the 100-yard mark with 111 and 102 yards, respectively.

Holloway’s 23-yard touchdown run right through the heart of Strasburg’s defense opened the game’s scoring early in the second quarter, and Bulldogs sophomore quarterback Dalton Griffith scored on a 54-yard run on Luray’s first possession of the third quarter when he got around the edge on a fourth-and-2 play.

The Bulldogs nailed down the victory when, following Strasburg’s turnover on downs at the Luray 7 late in the third quarter, they marched 93 yards on 14 plays, capping the drive with Holloway’s 8-yard TD with 6:08 to play.

“When you line up in there with those big guys like they got, it’s hard to stop them,” said Roller, whose team heads into its bye week in Week 3. “And we were able to do that a little bit, but they’d bust off a big run when they needed it, and that hurt us.”