STRASBURG — Strasburg’s Mark Roller said that as a football coach he’s always worried about the possibility of a letdown on game day. The Rams need to be extra cautious about a potential Week 5 flop given the factors surrounding tonight’s Bull Run District opener at home against Page County.
Strasburg is coming off the high of an emotional win over county rival Central last week and must also tackle any possible distractions of homecoming week as they prepare for Page County. Strasburg’s coaching staff had also already cautioned the Rams, who have aspirations of winning a district title, about not overlooking a Panthers program that doesn’t have much of a winning history, Roller said on Tuesday.
“A lot of variables going against you,” said Roller, who noted that Strasburg had a good practice on Monday as it turned its attention to Page County. “You hope that you’re not still living off of Friday night, and then you have all the excitement of homecoming activities this week, so you certainly just want to make sure that the kids are focused a little bit more because you have a double whammy going at you.”
Page County, one of four teams to move from the Shenandoah District to the Bull Run following the 2018-19 school year, played Strasburg annually for 51 years, but the two schools haven’t met on the football field since 2012.
The Rams dominated the last two decades of the matchup, winning 18 of the last 20 meetings and seven straight from 2006 to 2012.
Page County has endured an eternal struggle to find a winning brand of football. The Panthers haven’t had a winning season since 1993, and their four wins in 2018 were the most they’ve had in a season since 2005.
But Page County is 2-1 to start 2019 with wins over Nelson County and Wilson Memorial, and Roller said the Panthers played Luray — another team that figures to be in the thick of the Bull Run District title hunt — “really tough” in a 48-27 loss last week.
“I haven’t kept up with them, but most definitely, they are a lot better,” Roller said of a Page team in its eighth season under head coach Joey Soltis. “Just on film they’re big, they’re physical. They’re moving around all over the place. I think just based on what I’ve seen, we as a staff realize that they’re a lot better than probably some of the other teams we’re gonna play in our district.”
Friday night’s matchup has the makings of a slugfest.
Strasburg unveiled a new run-heavy, T-formation offense this season, and though the Rams will spread it out on occasion, senior quarterback Chase Hart has attempted only 23 passes in three games. Roller said Page County plays a similar offensive style, though out of the wishbone formation. Panthers senior QB Trey Knight, like Hart, has attempted just 23 passes this season.
In an age when many football teams, particularly at the higher levels of the sport, are spreading the football around, Friday night’s game will have an old-school feel.
“I guess you could say it’s different,” Rams senior two-way lineman Brandon Swafford said. “You’ve just got to come in with a different mindset that you’re gonna get beat up a lot.”
Roller said the Panthers have some players offensively who can break off the big play given room to run. Senior running back Mikey Cash and sophomore Blake Turpen have both rushed for 421 yards and four touchdowns this season and are averaging 9.0 and 9.6 yards per carry, respectively.
“They want to be able to misdirect a little bit and then pound you,” Roller said. “I said before, they’re big on the offensive line and we don’t have many kids that are very big, so that kind of worries us just because of their size. I think our effort will be there but size goes a long way.”
Strasburg’s defense has been stout so far, and the Rams held Central to 132 yards of total offense in last week’s 20-10 win. Fifty of those yards came on Central’s final drive of the game.
Offensively, the Rams hope to show better ball security after losing a pair of fumbles against the Falcons, including one near the goal line. Roller said Page County’s defense seems to always be around the ball, something he said prior to last week’s game of a Central defense that has 11 takeaways over the last three games.
“Ball security is definitely number one,” Rams leading rusher Jalen Bray said of the areas Strasburg wants to improve offensively. “I had a fumble last week, I’m gonna try to focus on that a little bit more. I would say probably right now fixing stuff like that. It’s just the minor things that we just need to tune up on. Nothing too major, but I think we’ll get it done before Friday.”
Swafford added that the Rams need to attack this week the way they attacked their Week 4 matchup against their rival, and he was encouraged by the energy Strasburg showed in practice earlier this week.
“We’re still kind of hype on that (win) but … it’s a new week so we’ve got to focus on Page,” Bray said. “Page is a lot different team than Central was, they’re a lot bigger up front and everything like that. We’ve just got to stay focused.”