Leader Blues

Friday, August 14, 2009

SPORTS >> Rhinos brace for Storm

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Oscar Malone says there’s no place anyone needs to be tonight other than Bob Hill Memorial Stadium for the rematch of the Arkansas Rhinos and the Nashville Storm.

“It’s going to be like the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles,” said Malone, the Rhinos’ owner and offensive coordinator. “We’re going to run and pass and be balanced. And we know what they’re going to do. They’re going to the throw the ball.”

Kickoff in Jacksonville is 7:05 p.m.

The undefeated Storm handed the Rhinos one of their two losses two weeks ago in Nashville, beating Arkansas 33-23. The Rhinos were without several key starters in the game. No one will be missing tonight.

The Rhinos followed up that loss to Nashville with a 62-24 win over the Arkansas Wildcats last Saturday to improve to 4-2. Nashville, which has won its five games by an average score of 55-17, was idle last weekend.

Malone isn’t the only one hyping the rematch between two teams that have gone after it hammer and tong over the past 15 years. The North American Football League has tagged it the NAFL game of the week.

Malone said the rivalry is not just a result of the two teams’ bouts of dominance against one another over the years — the Rhinos won seven in a row; the Storm has won the previous five. There is also the fact that the two teams seem to exchange players on a fairly regular basis.

“We have some of their old players, they have some of ours,” Malone said. “There’s lots of trash talking during the game. But then afterward, they all go and hang out together. It’s only on the field.”

The Storm handed Malone his first loss as coach of the Rhinos in a 38-3 trouncing back in 1994. But the Rhinos avenged that loss later in the season on their way to winning seven in a row. That included handing the Storm its only three losses in the 2005 season.

Nashville is led by quarterback Phellepe Hall, who at 5-10, 210 pounds, reminds Malone of the Eagles’ Donovan McNabb.

“He can step up and throw the big pass, but he can also run,” Malone said. “We’re going to have to be disciplined on defense.”

Hall operates behind a massive offensive line, but the Rhinos sport one of the toughest defenses in the league. They were No. 1 in the NAFL before surrendering 57 points in their past two games.

The Rhinos were missing three or four defensive starters and a couple of offensive starters in the first meeting with Nashville.

They were without three defensive backs and linebacker Enrico Williams as well as running back Jerald Marshall and wideout Tim Mason on offense.

While the Rhinos will focus on shutting down Hall and the passing game, the Storm’s task is a little more complex. Though Arkansas has gone to a more wide-open offense over the past three weeks — seldom using tight ends — they are still a team that can run or throw it on you. Brendon Medcalf and Marshall will provide the punch out of the backfield, while quarterback Damien Dunning will look to receivers Stewart Franks and Mason in the passing game.

“Their defense is pretty good,” Malone said. “They loaded the box on us last time but we found a way to make it happen.”

Indeed they did, piling up a season-high 384 yards. Medcalf ran for 137 of those yards, while Franks hauled in seven passes for 175 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Dunning completed 9 of 31 for 247 yards.

Malone hinted that the rivalry may have intensified as a result of a late field goal Nashville kicked with 10 seconds left to go up 33-15. The Rhinos returned the ensuing kickoff for the final margin.

“We’ve got about nine guys on our team that were there back in 2004 that have that rivalry taste in their mouth,” Malone said.

“They know how passionate we are about this game.”