The Cougars defense forced five turnovers, special teams blocked a punt for a touchdown and Rasheed Rankin had three touchdowns for the Cougars, as they bounced back from their Aug. 24 loss. After scoring just six points and turning it over six times, the Cougars reversed the trend in last week’s 48-20 win.
Coach Gehrig Hotaling said it was simply better focus in practice throughout the week.
“No doubt last week was rough, but we try to put that behind us and focus on one practice at a time,” Hotaling said. “We had a great week of practice and we played tonight how we practiced.”
Hotaling really stressed the week of practice leading into this game as the key to victory. In his huddle with the players after the game and in post-game interviews, he said that was the key for success. It’s not easy putting poor performances behind you, so for the Cougars to do this shows a level of mental toughness and resolve that will be needed for the tougher games this season.
What Coach Hotaling was most pleased about was the offense bouncing back. The Cougars offense had six turnovers in last week’s game, which overshadowed a tremendous defensive performance. The turnovers led to 18 unanswered points in the final quarter leading to the Cougars’ loss.
“We knew we had to bounce back, limiting turnovers was the key for us and we did that,” Hotaling said. “When we take care of the ball, we have guys who can make plays and get in the end zone, which is what happened tonight.”
Three of those players were quarterback Jared Stocker, wide receiver Darius Hurst and running back Rasheed Rankin.
The Cougars offensive game plan was to run the ball behind Jayden Herrera and Rankin with Stocker hitting big throws down the field. Herrera put the Cougars in position with four straight wild cat runs in the first quarter and then Stocker threw a perfect fade to the back of the end zone that Hurst caught, leaping over the Vanden defender. Stocker only had seven completions on the night, but they went for 100 yards and two touchdowns. He made the big plays when the offense needed him to.
Rankin was the story of the night though. The 6’1” 225 pound running back wore down the Vanden defense by running over them consistently and having multiple runs carrying defenders five yards on his back. He even showed off his improved speed by breaking away on a 53-yard touchdown run. Rankin finished the night with 149 yards and 3 touchdowns on 17 carries. Rankin credited his offensive line and his time running track last season for his successful night.
“All thanks go to the offensive line,” Rankin said. “We had a great week of practice, they pushed each other all week. The running backs pushed each other, and we had big holes to run through.”
Rankin, like Coach Hotaling, talked about the great week of practice the Cougars had. Having a great practice doesn’t always translate onto the field, but for the Cougars it was obvious. At 225 lbs. Rankin is a power back, but he says his speed improved last year running track.
“I ran track last year toward the end of my junior year, it’s all credit to them,” Rankin said. “They helped with my form, working on knee drive and I thank them for that.”
Rankin and Stocker are well known to fans of Cougar football. Hurst though, might be a different story. Hurst is returning to the Cougars after a three-year hiatus and so far, it looks like he hasn’t missed a beat. He’s been the Cougars best player the first two weeks of the season according to Coach Hotaling. Hurst had an acrobatic catch for the Cougars first touchdown, played a shutdown game at corner and had a blocked punt in the fourth quarter that led to the Cougars final touchdown.
So how does a guy go from not playing the sport for three years to be an impactful player?
“I’m a product of my coaches,” Hurst said. “They are some of the best coaches in Northern California and they’ve taught me everything.”
Players like Hurst exist on every team. Guys who are naturally talented but need to be coached up. With how well Hurst has played to start this season, the Cougars coaching staff should feel proud of themselves for creating such a versatile player.
The Cougars defense was again stellar. Middle linebacker Mihalis Santorineos led the Cougars with 15 tackles and 2 fumble recoveries, defensive back Tai Peleti had 14, while Garrett Ridley and Max Uli had consistent pressure throughout the game. Uli had two sacks and Ridley had a tackle for loss and great pressure.
Another theme emerged for the Cougars last night, coming together as a team. According to Coach Hotaling, the Cougars have new players who either haven’t played football before, have been away from the game for a while and guys in new positions. Finding out how to mold these players into a cohesive unit is the challenge for the coaching staff. The Cougars could have easily quit when they went down early to the Vanden Vikings. Instead, they dug deep, made adjustments and let the leaders on the team take over. One of those leaders was Rankin, who perfectly summed up the night.
“We came together as a team this week, before this we hadn’t really been a team,” Rankin said. “This week we finally came together and became more of a family, which showed tonight.”
The Cougars will hope to keep that momentum going at home against El Cerrito High School Fri. at 7 p.m.