Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

SPORTS>>Jacksonville opener grand for Rhinos

Leader sportswriter

Defense and three Garrett Morgan field goals helped lift the Arkansas Rhinos to a 22-0 win over the Memphis Blast on Saturday night at Red Devil Field.

It was the second North America Football League win over the Blast in three weeks to start the 2008 season, but this one didn’t come quite as easy, at least early on.

Both teams struggled through a scoreless first half on the damp field. The Rhinos had difficulty with the Memphis blitz, and both teams found holding on to the ball to be a difficult task as well. The Rhinos fumbled the ball away three times in the first half, but the momentum shifted toward the Rhinos at the 2:41 mark of the second quarter when linebacker Daniel Brown snagged the second of the Rhinos’ five interceptions in the game.

The Rhinos failed to cash that in, but a Marcus Yarbrough interception two minutes into the second half led to Morgan’s 34-yard kick with 13:12 left in the third quarter for the first points of the game.

“It was tough,” Rhinos coach Oscar Malone said. “It seemed like we hadn’t practiced all week, and we looked bad, especially in the first quarter. But the third quarter, we came in and we made some adjustments and picked up their blitzing.

“After we figured out who to block, which we should have already known who to block, we got it done.”

From there, Rhinos free safety and crowd favorite Lawrance Coupling grabbed two more interceptions to kill a potential Memphis comeback.

The Rhinos added to their lead with Morgan’s second field goal, this one from 45 yards that put Arkansas up 6-0 with 7:21 in the third, then made it 13-0 less than three minutes later when fullback William Lamar bulled over from two yards out.

Lamar set the score up one play earlier when he rumbled 38 yards up the middle to the Memphis’ 2-yard line.

Jacksonville capped the scoring with 8:51 left to play when former Red Devil Marcus Tate went around the right side for a 6-yard touchdown and a 22-0 lead. The extra point was missed, but it was the result of a bobbled snap.

“We could have had a little more than that,” Malone said. “(Morgan) got his confidenceshook a little bit, but once we got him going, and get our kicking going, he’s fine. He was our MVP on offense last game.”

Lamar led the Rhinos in rushing with five carries for 67 yards. Wesson had eight rushes for 41 and a touchdown, and Tate had three carries for 25 yards and a touchdown.

Malone said he was also proud of the effort from the defense.

“Overall, our defense was outstanding,” he said. “That’s what kept us in the game. Every time we had our backs against the wall, they came back and made great plays.”

Linebacker Enrico Wilkins didn’t join in in the interception extravaganza, but his efforts everywhere else kept the Blast’s offense off balance. Wilkins led the Rhinos for the second straight game with 11 tackles — eight solo.

Memphis’ big-time playmaker Kevin Veal was still out of commission after missing the opener two weeks ago, and Williams and the Rhinos ‘D’ took advantage by stopping halfback Antonio Wells in his tracks. Wells, at 5-6, 165 lbs., was no match for Arkansas.

Wells carried a total of eight times for only three yards, forcing the Blast to resort to the air.

A Rhinos fumble with 6:19 left in the second quarter gave Memphis the ball at its own 27-yard line, but Ken Thomas got it back quickly for Arkansas, intercepting a first-down pass that bounced off of Memphis receiver Carlos Alexander’s chest and right into Thomas’ arms.

The Rhinos coughed it up again on their first play. A 60-yard pass play put the Blast in their best position to score all night at the Rhinos’ 12-yard line, but Brown’s pick near the goal line ended the threat.

Memphis got in position to try a field goal in the closing moments of the first half, but kicker James Lawton shanked it badly, sending the ball into the back of his line defenders.

Morgan was a little shaky in the first half himself for the Rhinos, missing tries of 42 yards and 40 yards. Both were wide right, but he went 3 for 3 in the second half.

Quarterbacks Josh Dixon and Jeremiah Crouch combined for 151 yards through the air, completing 11 of 22 pass attempts.

The Rhinos had 306 total yards of offense.

The Rhinos are now 2-0, and will play at Clarksville against the Knights on July 12.

They will not play at home again until Aug. 2.