Rocky comeback falls short in 30-26 defeat

Ryan Fitzmaurice
The Rocky Mountain Grizzlies will be seeing Riverside running back Ty Strohschein in their sleep.

But, the Grizz almost gave the Rebels a nightmare of their own in the second-half, orchestrating a determined comeback that fell just short in a 30-26 heartbreaker.

The team now stands at a record of 4-2.

Riverside outrushed the Grizz 280 yards to 136 yards, the vast majority on the back of Strohschein, who burned Rocky for big gain after big gain in a dominant first half. 

“I’ve been mentally making a file on how to lose football games so we can make sure to not do them. That’ll go in the box there. We need to tackle well,” head coach Jessee Wilson said. “It doesn’t matter what game plan you have, if you can’t tackle a guy, it doesn’t really matter.”

Strohschein wasted no time in getting started. After Riverside drove from their own 30 to the Rocky Mountain 45, Strohschein burst to the outside for a 45-yard touchdown. A successful two-point conversion gave Riverside an early 8-0 lead.

Rocky responded in their first drive of the game. After driving past midfield, Rocky quarterback Lafe Files found Tucker Jackson for a 30-yard gain, bringing Rocky into the red zone before a  Files run brought the Grizz right to the goal line.

Nothing came easy, though. It would take Rocky four attempts to punch the ball in, with Wil Loyning finally pounding the ball into the end zone on a critical fourth down on a one-yard power play. The two-point conversion was no good, placing Rocky behind 8-6.

Riverside wasted no time re-establishing a firm advantage despite a resolute Rocky defense, this time finding Strohschein with a screen pass at midfield on a 4th and 11. He ran it all the way in. With a successful two-point conversion, the Rebels led 16-6.

“He’s a good, strong back,” Wilson said. “We took poor angles to make tackles, and we weren’t reading our keys on defense. We were freelancing. Our linebackers are kids who like to hit people. Those are the kids you like as linebackers. But, over the course of the game, they start creeping up and creeping up and that gets them lost in the mix, and they are unable to flow to the ball. That’s what hurt us quite a bit. Our linebackers couldn’t get to the ball.”

It was a near certainty that the Grizz would again return the blow in their next possession, when Files again found Jackson for a 44-yard pass that advanced the Grizz all the way to the Riverside two-yard line.

But a halfback toss was blown up in the backfield on second down, and the Grizz never recovered. They turned the ball over on downs, and Riverside retained their 10-point lead. 

“Short-yardage scenarios have been an issue for us,” Wilson said. “I don’t know if it’s a mentality thing. Maybe we’re letting up thinking we’re going to score. The other thing, too, it gets harder in the red zone. There’s less space. There are more people in the box and it gets harder to run when you get down there. I think for our guys it’s about having that attitude of just smelling the end zone. We’re not looking to juke and jive. Smell the end zone, and slam it in there.”

The Grizz got another opportunity from the 50-yard line after a Jackson interception gave Riverside’s next drive an early ending. The pick is Jackson’s fifth in the four games he has played, a statistic Wilson said leads the conference. 

“He’s got more picks than games played,” Wilson said. “That’s pretty good.”

But Rocky stalled and was unable to advance after Files overthrew an open Jackson downfield. Riverside received the ball only four plays later.

And then things got worse. 

Riverside orchestrated a seven-play 82-yard drive ending in a 31-yard rush by Strohschein into the end zone for his third touchdown of the half. A successful two-point conversion gave Riverside a towering 24-6 lead as the first half dwindled away.

Rocky would find some magic just before the half ending, with Loyning finding Clayton Thompson for a 51-yard touchdown before time expired. 

Loyning found himself stuffed on the two-point conversion attempt, but the Grizz narrowed the gap, now only down 24-12. 

“We needed to steal that possession before halftime. That gave us a chance to make up the two scores that they had,” Wilson said. “Clayton made a heck of a play. Tucker made a nice block to help free him. He’s a great lead blocker.”

With Rocky possessing the ball first in the second half, they performed what Wilson stated might be their most accomplished offensive drive of the year, a 15-play, 65-yard drive, eating eight minutes off the clock. Loyning ran it in from one yard out at the end of the drive, and Files outran his defender on a quarterback sweep to convert the two-point attempt. 

Suddenly, the Grizz were only down four, 24-20.

“Our offense was the best it has been all year. We were able to sustain and move the ball,” Wilson said. “In the third quarter, that opening drive was exactly what we wanted to do. We got the quick score at the end of the first half, and then we went down and played a little bit of keep away. We nickel and dimed our way down the field. That shows so much growth. In high school football, it is hard to put together a 10-play or more drive. Especially against a solid team. We did that all game, I thought.”

Riverside bit back quickly, though, to orchestrate their own six-play drive, ending in Strohschein getting yet another running touchdown, this time from only a few yards out.

Rocky stopped the two-point conversion deep in the backfield, but Riverside had re-established a two-score 30-20 lead.

After a fumbled snap two plays later gave Riverside the ball again at their own 30, things looked dire. 

As the fourth quarter happened, Riverside appeared as if they had fought off the Rocky comeback and were again poised to score. 

Rocky’s defense stood strong. After stopping Strohschein for a short gain, Riverside attempted to hurl the ball downfield on fourth down, sailing right over their wide receiver’s head.

Rocky took advantage. After Loyning advanced the ball 25 yards on a rush through the middle, Files himself cut through the Riverside defense to gain Rocky 13 more yards. 

Loyning ended up running it in from 6 yards out. 

An unsuccessful two-point conversion still put Rocky within one score, 30-26.

But, while Riverside’s offense found themselves stymied by Rocky for the rest of the fourth quarter, Rocky never was able to finish the comeback.

Riverside threatened another drive in their next possession but instead coughed the ball up, with Tayt Beall recovering the fumble. 

But, only plays later, three Riverside players appeared to stop the momentum of Thompson after a 10-yard reception before the ball popped out. The referees never called the play dead, and Riverside recovered.

Wilson said whether Thompson’s momentum was stopped or not was ultimately a judgement call by referees. The only thing clear following the controversial call was that Rocky had lost a golden opportunity. 

They would have one more with less than two minutes on the clock, but that, too, ended in disappointment. With an open Thompson unable to handle a Files pass to give Rocky a new set of downs, the Grizz turned the ball over on fourth down.

Riverside entered the victory formation and took home the narrow win.

“We just dug ourselves in a hole and you think back and there’s a lot of different ways where one play goes a little bit different and it’s a different ball game,” Wilson said. “We had them at fourth and 11 and they throw a screen pass that goes 40 yards. We drop the ball in the end zone. We run into each other in the end zone. We don’t get a two-point conversion. Sometimes it doesn’t work out for you. With the way we were playing in the second half, I was fully intending to go down there and score and win the game. We had our chances. We lost a game we feel like we could have won.”

Rocky’s defense was missing its best player in the game after Brenner Moore was kept out of the game by a blood clot in his leg. Wilson said he is optimistic that Moore will return by the end of the season.

Wilson praised Matthew Crosby, who replaced Moore on short notice. 

“Crosby is a guard that got turned into a tight end on Thursday,” Wilson said “I thought he did a really nice job. I was proud of him.”

In the meantime, Triffen Jolley made an argument that he is just as good as Moore, recording 31 defensive points in the game, including 11 unassisted tackles, four assisted tacks, four tackles for a loss and one sack. 

Thompson recorded six assisted tackles, six unassisted tackles and one tackle for loss. 

Loyning had his best defensive game of the season, recording six assisted tackles and four assisted tackles, along with a fumble recovery on a botched Riverside two-point conversion. 

Jackson has two  assisted tackles, four unassisted tackles and an interception. 

In a game of great running back play, Loyning did not miss the memo, running the ball 24 times for 97 yards and three touchdowns. 

“Wil played a tough game,’ Wilson said. “He is a deceiving power back. That’s what he does.”

Files went 8 for 16 for 217 yards and ran it 12 times for 51 yards.

“He’s getting more confidence with his reads and making the right decisions,” Wilson said. 

Jackson had five receptions for 107 yards. Thompson had two receptions for 58 yards, Jacob Bischoff two receptions for 52 yards. 

Rocky football next takes the field today (Thursday), when they play the Cody sophomores on their home field
at 5 p.m. Rocky was originally scheduled to play St. Stephens on Friday,
but the team cancelled their season.