Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

SPORTS >> Rhinos drop seventh straight versus Storm

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

First, the good news.

The Arkansas Rhinos’ top-ranked defense held the Nashville Storm to their lowest total of the year, a full touchdown below their average. And the recently revamped Rhino offense turned in its best performance of the season.

But all of that merely translated into the Rhinos’ second loss of the season — their fifth straight to the Storm — in a 33-23 road setback last Saturday.

“We had a great offensive game,” said Rhino owner and offensive coordinator Oscar Malone. “We just did not stop them.

They’re a high-powered team. They just had more big plays than we did.”

The Rhinos, who fell to 3-2, played without three of their starting defensive backs and without linebacker Enrico Williams. Wide out Tim Mason also missed the trip.

“Travel is the biggest problem with the league,” Malone said. “Especially when you have long trips, it’s hard for some of these guys to be able to get away from their families.”

Arkansas played catch up all night long after falling into a 14-0 hole when the Storm, which came into the game averaging more than 40 points a game, scored on their first two possessions.

A 31-yard field goal narrowed the lead to 14-3, but the Storm added another touchdown to extend the lead to 21-3.

The Rhinos, though, got back in it right before the half when Damien Dunning threw the first of his two touchdown passes on the night — this one a 22-yarder to Stewart Franks. The extra point attempt failed, but the Rhinos went into the locker room down by only 12.

But the Storm reclaimed their earlier 18-point cushion with a third-quarter score before the Rhinos struck back. Again it was Franks, who caught a Dunning pass on a slant route and raced 47 yards to make it 27-15 late in the third period.

The Storm went on a long drive, eating up eight minutes of the clock and eventually tacked on a field goal. They added another one late in the game to push the lead to 33-15. The Rhinos scored on the ensuing kickoff when Marcus Yarbrough handed the ball to Matthew Stewart on a reverse and Stewart scampered 91 yards to set the final margin.

Quarterback Jeremiah Crouch, who started the first three games for the Rhinos, is out for the season with a torn tendon in his elbow and Dunning made the most of his new role as starting signal caller. Dunning was 9 of 21 for 247 yards with one interception and two TDs. Seven of those nine completions went to Franks, who turned them into 175 receiving yards, including two touchdowns.

With running back Jerald Marshall not making the trip, Malone turned to Brendan Medcalf, who responded with 25 carries for 137 yards. The Rhinos’ 384 total yards was their biggest offensive output of the season and Malone said he is pleased with the new system he put in place a couple of weeks back. (The Rhinos have gotten away from tight-end formations and have gone to three- and sometimes four-wideout sets.)

“I’m happy with the offense, but we still have some minor issues like a bad snap here, a bad route run there,” Malone said. “I would have loved to have had this offense in when we started back in April with the talent we have now. We might even be undefeated.”

The Rhinos head to Osceola on Saturday to take on the Arkansas Wildcats, a team they beat 13-0 in week two. They return home on Aug. 15 for a rematch with the Storm, a game Malone is looking forward to with great relish.

“That’s going to be a knockdown-dragout fight,” he said. “That will be like a playoff atmosphere. We want all of Jacksonville to come out there and get behind us for that one.”