Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

SPORTS >> Storm ravages Rhinos

Leader sports editor

It was a game that had just about everything but on-field drama.

In a sloppily played rematch between two of the premier teams in the North American Football League, the Nashville Storm finished off a season sweep of the Arkansas Rhinos with a 22-6 win at Bob Hill Memorial Field in Jacksonville on Saturday night.

The game, billed as a battle on the order of a Dallas Cowboys-Philadelphia Eagles clash, failed to live up to the hype as the Storm scored twice early while the Rhinos struggled to get anything going offensively. They finished with only 139 yards, suffered three turnovers, a slew of penalties and a couple of bad snaps on special teams.

The contest, in fact, may best be remembered for all the strange things that happened along the way, rather than for the play on the field.

Nashville was awarded six downs on one series, which allowed it to turn a second-and-50 situation into a field goal.

Two series later, the Rhinos were given only three downs on their series.

But the strangest, and scariest, moment of the night came midway through the fourth period when Rhino assistant coach Harry Coleman collapsed along the sidelines. Play was stopped for nearly 15 minutes as medics attended to Coleman and a prayer chain was formed around him while the ambulance was summoned.

“He’s fine,” Rhino owner and coach Oscar Malone said on Monday. “It was his blood pressure. He was caught up in the game and we all were kind of stressed out.”

The Storm, which improved to 6-0 as the Rhinos dropped to 4-3, featured five offensive linemen who tipped the scales at over 1,700 pounds. Despite that, the Rhino defense was able to settle down and put the clamps on a Nashville team that came into the game averaging 55 points a game. But Nashville was able to strike twice in the first 10 minutes to take a 13-0 lead, going 55 yards in eight plays and 78 yards in five plays.

The second of those scoring drives followed a promising drive by the Rhinos that ended with an Alfred Thomas fumble at the Nashville 25. Thomas, filling in at fullback, had just rumbled 23 yards when the ball came loose. The big play in the Nashville drive was a 50-yard completion to the 1 from Phellepe Hall to Jeremiah Weaver.

But aided by a pair of pass-interference penalties, the Rhinos struck back. After quarterback Damien Dunning hooked up with Stewart Franks for 20 yards to midfield, wide receiver Tim Mason was interfered with at the goal line, setting up Dunning’s one-yard sneak. A bad snap on the extra point kept the Rhinos trailing 13-6 with 58 seconds left in the opening period.

That would be the final touchdown of the night as strong-legged Storm kicker John Gorecki took care of the rest with three field goals.

The strangest series in an overall strange game came on Nashville’s ensuing possession. After moving to the Rhino 25, the Storm was flagged for three consecutive penalties and faced a second and 50 from its own 35. Hall completed a 40-yard pass to set up a third and 10, but after a seven-yard run, the down marker still showed second down instead of what should have been fourth down.

A completion for no gain and a two-yard run moved the ball to the 16 and Gorecki came on to boot a 34-yard field goal to extend the Nashville lead to 16-6 with 9:42 left in the half.

“That was a poorly called game and we just couldn’t get a break,” Malone said. “It was in Nashville’s favor and I hate to say that, but there were a lot of game-changing calls.”

A roughing-the-punter penalty on Nashville got the Rhinos out of the shadow of their own goal line on the next possession, but not only couldn’t Arkansas move the ball, Dunning got hurt and the Rhinos had to punt.

Mason picked off a Hall pass, but the Rhinos received only three downs on their next series and a bad snap on the punt turned the ball over to Nashville at the Rhino 17 with just 33 seconds left in the half. Though the Rhinos busted through to sack Hall back at the 27, a personal foul moved it to the 13 and Gorecki tacked on a 30-yard field goal as the Storm took a 19-6 lead into the locker room.

The Rhinos, thanks to a sputtering offense and eight Nashville penalties, ran only 15 offensive plays in the first half and only 31 overall. Though Dunning returned at quarterback to start the second half, it made little difference as the Rhinos made only one first down after halftime when Dunning hit Franks on a crossing pattern and he rumbled for 61 yards down to the Storm 17. But the drive stalled and Arkansas’ last hope was vanquished on a fourth and goal from the 3 when Brendon Medcalf was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage.

Nashville tacked on a field goal midway through the final quarter after the Storm intercepted a Dunning pass deep in Rhino territory.

Nashville finished with 341 total yards, but only 121 of those came after intermission.

For Arkansas, Dunning completed 4 of 13 passes for 100 yards, while Jeremiah Crouch was 2 of 3 for 17 yards.

Malone said Dunning suffered a high ankle sprain which will take six to eight weeks to heal. Despite that, he said Dunning is scheduled to start this Saturday when the Rhinos host the Memphis Panthers.

“The guys know we did not play our best offensive game,” Malone said. “But we corrected those yesterday in practice. We know we can bounce back from it.”