Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

SPORTS>> Rhinos’ offense falls flat in loss to Nashville

Leader sportswriter

Oscar Malone has sung the praises of his defense all summer, but the Arkansas Rhinos head coach is ready to rearrange the chorus when it comes to offense.

The Rhinos lost to the Nashville Storm 19-12 on Saturday at Red Devil Field in a defensive battle in which Arkansas managed only 74 yards of total offense.

Three unanswered touchdowns by the Storm from the end of the first half on allowed them to keep their No. 1 ranking in the North America Football League. The win also kept them atop the Tennessee Valley Conference standings.

“We just couldn’t get any chemistry with our offense,” Malone said. “Both defenses did a great job; both of them had great pressure all night. I was proud of our defense. (The Storm) average 52 points a game, so for us to hold them to only 19 is a pretty good accomplishment.”

Malone said the loss of standout running back Brannon Metcalf has thrown a wrench into the Rhinos’ entire scheme. Metcalf went down with an ankle injury during Arkansas’ loss to Memphis two weeks ago.

“We’re going to have to find an identity on offense,” Malone said. “We may have to change our philosophy on being a power running team. We’re going to work on our offensive package before we play Clarksville on (Aug. 16), so there’s a possibility that we may put the ball in the air a little more with some screens and play action. We also want to look for those quick hitters up the middle.”

The Rhinos held the momentum for most of the first half. Quarterback Jeremiah Crouch snuck in from one yard out midway through the first quarter for the first score. The drive was set up on a forced fumble by defensive end Brandon Mitchell that was recovered by Jeff Ridgle at the Nashville 17-yard line.

The Rhinos’ defense came up big again in the second quarter when safety Ben Witcher intercepted a pass from Storm QB and former Rhino Ty Fortes deep in Arkansas territory. Witcher returned the pick to the Rhinos’ 35, and the offense went to work again.

The drive stalled once they got in Nashville territory, but kicker Garrett Morgan extended the lead with a 47-yard field goal to make it 10-0. Forte made sure that the Storm didn’t enter the intermission scoreless, however, with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Roger Moore just before the half as the Rhinos took a 10-7 lead into halftime.

Both defenses dominated the third quarter, but the Storm took over the lead at the start of the fourth quarter with their second touchdown drive. That made it 13-10, but a blocked extra-point attempt by Sam Witchell led to two points for the Rhinos when Chris Johnson scooped up the loose ball and took it 93 yards for the conversion, pulling the Rhinos back to within a single point at 13-12.

Nashville put up an insurance score later on in the final quarter, and a turnover by the Rhinos in the final minute sealed the deal.

The Rhinos are now 2-2 on the season, and in danger of not qualifying for the NAFL postseason. The process of choosing teams for the playoffs is similar to the BCS ranking system, and Malone says more offensive points are desperately needed at this stage.

The defense has kept numbers low, giving up an average of only seven points a game, but an 11.2 PPG average by the offense is not what former Razorback Malone was looking for.

“We can’t lose anymore games for one thing,” Malone said. “When we play Nashville again, we really need to beat them by at least eight points. I was pleased that we went to the wire with the number one team in the league, and I was also pleased that the fans stuck it out in the heat and stayed for the duration.”

Crouch completed 5 of 12 pass attempts for 43 yards and had one rushing touchdown, while Gerrell Marshall carried the ball six times for 24 yards.

Enrico Williams led the defense with nine tackles, while Trey Smith added eight.

The Rhinos will be back in action on Aug. 16 when they host the Clarksville Knights at Red Devil Field.