Robert Perea, The Fernley Reporter
In a pair of losses earlier this season to Truckee and Sacred Heart Cathedral, it was the inability to pick up the blitz that caused the Vaqueros their biggest problems.
That was again a major part of their undoing in a 42-19 loss at Elko last Friday, and how well they can handle the blitz could go a long way to determining their fate Friday against Sparks.
The Vaqueros will host Sparks at 7 p.m. Friday on Homecoming, in a game that could be pivotal to the playoff hopes for both teams. Fernley and Sparks are both 2-3 in the Northern 3A, in a three-way tie with Lowry for fifth place. A loss would be most damaging to Sparks, which has already lost to Lowry, while the Vaqueros beat the Buckaroos and would hold tiebreakers against both teams with a win over the Railroaders.
To do so the Vaqueros are going to have to eliminate the mistakes that have plagued them throughout the season, and which, according to coach Chris Ward, have been the cause of most of their struggles.
“The stuff we’re trying to do is there,” Ward said. “We have open receivers and can’t get the ball to them, and we have open running lanes and we’re not getting off blocks and they collapse on us.”
The inability to pick up the blitz has been a recurring theme, and it bit the Vaqueros several times in last week’s loss at Elko, translating directly to the scoreboard.
Fernley turned the ball over deep in its own territory on its first three possessions, and did a good job defensively to hold Elko to field goals after two of them, trailing 13-0 before they’d gotten a first down on offense.
On the third of those fumbles, quarterback Miles Steele, making his first varsity start, was stripped of the ball by a blitzing defender, while another was caused when another blitzer hit a Fernley runner before he secured the ball.
Fernley’s fourth turnover, an interception on its fifth possession of the game, ended a potential scoring threat, and instead, Elko’s Cooper Jones took a misdirection handoff 82 yards for a touchdown on a third-and-155 play, to stretch the lead to 21-0.
Jones added a 48-yard touchdown run on Elko’s next snap, making it 28-0 with 6:19 still left in the first half.
A 1-yard touchdown run by Steele got the Vaqueros on the board, at 28-6 with 3:59 left in the second quarter, but the Indians stuck the Vaqueros with a dagger, scoring on a blocked punt with 19 seconds left in the half to lead 35-6.
Fernley recovered an onside kick to start the second half, and put together its best drive of the game, an 11-play drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock and cut the lead to 35-12 on a 1-yard touchdown run by Brandon Reyes.
But Elko struck back quickly, with a 55-yard touchdown pass from Carter Alvarado to Jones to make it 42-12.
Anthony Thompson scored on an 88-yard run to finish the scoring.
Reyes, who has taken over the role as the lead fullback the past three weeks despite being a sophomore, ran for 135 yards on 17 carries. Steele, who replaced Cooper Henderson as the starting quarterback, completed 3 of 11 passes for 87 yards, and ran 18 times for 39 yards.
Ward said the switch was one of several position changes the Vaqueros made before last week’s game. Henderson moved back to the slot position he played last season, and Shawn Gleason also played a slot position.
“It was nothing against Cooper, but he’s one of our strongest kids and we felt we need his strength on the perimeter,” Ward said. “We’re trying to get our best group out there.”
The Vaqueros also did some shuffling along the offensive line. Ward said Sparks runs a similar defensive alignment to Elko, a 3-4 front that operates like the old Chicago Bears “52” defense, with man coverage.
“But they blitz out of different fronts, so hopefully we’re ready to play and we’ve got our act together,” Ward said.
Ward said he is anxious to see if the Vaqueros handle the blitz better this week, facing a similar front for the second straight week, although he’s perplexed how blitzing has caused the Vaqueros problems in the first place.
“It’s been our Achilles heel, but with our offense, you almost hope the defense blitzes you,” he said. “All of our blocking schemes are designed to pick up the blitz, and when you blitz, there’s no inside out pursuit.
Offensively, Sparks spreads the field with a variety of different formations, mostly designed to create space to run the ball. Junior quarterback Tyler Green, 69 rushes for 503 yards, and Aleki Po’oi, 57 for 384, have done most of the work on the ground for the Railroaders. Green has completed 27 of 59 passes for 397 yards.
After slow starts the past couple of weeks, Ward said he hopes the Vaqueros start the game well Friday.
“Our number one goal is just to start the game the way it should be started,” he said. “Let’s quit making mistakes and having to fight our way back.”