There’s a little extra juice added to the Central-Strasburg football rivalry this week.
Two weeks after the Falcons went into Strasburg and handed the Rams a 35-7 loss on their home field in the regular-season finale, the two county rivals will square off in Friday’s Region 2B semifinals, slated for a 7 p.m. kickoff in Woodstock, for the chance to compete for a regional title and a state semifinal berth.
Friday's victor will play the winner of No. 2 Stuarts Draft and No. 3 Clarke County in next week's Region 2B championship.
Central and Strasburg are meeting in the postseason for just the third time ever, and Rams head coach Mark Roller said this week that the playoff stakes add “a little spice” to the matchup, a statement that Central coach Mike Yew agreed with.
“The rivalry is awesome,” said Yew, whose team has bested the Rams in each of their first two playoff meetings in 2012 and 2018. “It is a good atmosphere, but you’re playing for a little bit more this time. Last time we were playing for seeding knowing that both of us were going to the playoffs. This time you’re playing to move on. You lose this one, you go home, so it adds a little more to the table and then it probably adds a little more pressure to both teams.”
For top-seeded Central (9-1), Friday’s game will be about continuing the momentum it’s built during a six-game winning streak that includes a 35-14 win over Madison County in last week’s regional quarterfinals.
The No. 4 Rams (9-2), on the other hand, earned a rematch with the Falcons after a thrilling 16-point comeback against Buckingham County last week and have revenge on their minds as they seek their second straight Region 2B championship game appearance. Strasburg sophomore linebacker Colby Shaw said earlier this week that it was “embarrassing what (Central) did to us in the last game of the regular season.”
“Obviously things didn’t go our way the weekend before last,” Roller said, “and our kids are excited about getting another chance. There are some things that we can do differently, and I think mentally our guys are gonna be more focused this time around. There’s no excuse from here on out not to be ready.”
Strasburg held the early momentum in that first meeting on Nov. 6, as it scored on its opening drive to take a 7-0 lead before Central shut down the Rams and reeled off 35 unanswered points over the final 29 minutes of the game. Roller said it felt like that game got away from the Rams after they let the momentum slip away, a lapse that Central took advantage of.
Falcons sophomore fullback/linebacker Tyler Forbes said it’s “extremely” important that Central doesn’t overlook Strasburg in Friday’s rematch after the last result.
“They’re still a very good team, all in all,” Forbes said. “Just because we’ve beaten them doesn’t mean anything.”
Yew said adjustments are “certainly in the back of both our minds,” noting that Central would tweak areas of its own game based on what Strasburg had success with in the first meeting while the Rams will surely look for solutions defensively to a Falcon passing attack that burned Strasburg two weeks ago.
“It’s like a chess game, really. But the biggest thing I’ve talked about all week is I’ve watched a lot of film and I just told our coaches we can’t overthink this,” Yew said. “We’ve got to be who we are. I really believe Strasburg will come out and be who they are, and the best team will win.”
Central’s offense, which has opened up the passing game in recent weeks, seems to be hitting its stride at a crucial point in the season, and Yew said a major emphasis for the Falcons this week is not turning the football over against an opportunistic Strasburg defense that has 34 takeaways this fall.
The Falcons have thrived all season on the legs of senior workhouse running back Isaiah Dyer (941 yards, 16 touchdowns), and Nazaiah Merit (416 yards, six TDs) has become more active in the running game in recent weeks and provides a nice change of pace from Dyer’s bruising style.
Central quarterback Ashton Baker has completed 68% of his passes for 970 yards, 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions this season. He tossed three TD passes against the Rams two weeks ago, including two to fellow senior and big-play threat Caleb Daugherty (462 yards receiving, six TDs).
The 28 points scored by Central’s offense in the first meeting (the Falcons also had a defensive score) were the most allowed this season by a Ram defense that is limiting opponents to just 9.8 points per game.
“They’re definitely a very, very dangerous offense,” Shaw said. “They have a great passing game, they’ve got some really hard runners. Isaiah Dyer and Tyler Forbes, that’s a really good duo right there, and they’ve got that big offensive line that can block for a while. When Ashton needs time in the pocket, he gets that time and he gets to make plays, and that’s amazing for them.”
Strasburg’s offense, which mustered just 89 yards against the Falcons after its opening TD drive two weeks ago and finished with 150 total in the game, needs to “stay on our blocks a little bit longer,” Roller said, and needs to make sure it’s blocking a group of Central linebackers that the Rams’ head coach said did a great job filling gaps and getting to the point of attack in Round 1.
The Rams lean heavily on the running game in its T-formation offense, and seniors Brady Neary (656 yards, seven TDs) and Tanner Jenkins (639 yards, 9 TDs) lead a rushing attack that features five players with at least 44 carries and two rushing touchdowns this season.
Strasburg junior quarterback Ryan Roller (383 yards passing, 157 yards rushing, 10 total TDs) did not play against Buckingham County last week after suffering a shoulder injury in the third quarter of the loss to Central, and Mark Roller said that as of Monday his son would play Friday night, though in what capacity would be determined as the week progressed. Ryan Roller also plays safety and leads the Rams with five interceptions.
Central’s defense has been stout in its own right and is holding opponents to 13 points per game this fall. The Falcons held Madison County to just 21 yards in the first half last week and to 147 total yards in the game.
Yew called Strasburg’s offense “meticulous” and that the Rams’ practices are spent primarily sharpening the same “six or eight plays.”
“Now, will we see a wrinkle Friday night? Absolutely,” Yew said. “We’re gonna see a different kind of screen out of them or something like that. We’re gonna see some kind of reverse pass, we might see a double pass, probably see a reverse on the kickoff. They’re going to throw a wrinkle at us in one way or another, and for us it’s the same thing. We’ve got to try to find a wrinkle that we can take advantage of them on as well. You’re gonna see 90%, I think, of the same thing you saw last Friday, but the 10% adjustments from both of us will be a big factor in the game.”