It took 6 seconds to find out how Saturday night’s game was going to go.
Newly signed kicker Renaud Labrecque, who arrived in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, lofted a short one to Steamwheelers’ return man Keyvan Rudd. Rudd took it to the house. The end zone celebration turned into a scrum, in which River Kings defensive lineman Desmond Raiford was flagged for a 15 yard “unsportsmanlike conduct” penalty.
Game time: 14:54.
There were some positives on the night — we’ll get there — but let’s get it all out up front: For the River Kings, this was effectively a scrimmage. Labrecque is the shortest-tenured River King, but the team experienced significant roster churn almost to the opening whistle. The starting defensive line — Raiford, Walter Walker, and Jacob Banegas — had little time to gel. An early injury to Raiford forced linebacker La’More Wise to put a hand down; he was replaced in the middle by a recently signed defensive back, Diante Thomas. On the offensive side, the River Kings dressed only one running back, James Harden, and at least one offensive tackle, Dominic Logan, was a converted defensive end.
Too bad it wasn’t a scrimmage, and now we’re 0-1.
Such an inexperienced team is bound to have…. ummm… “room for improvement.” The offensive line started getting more in sync in the second half, but the first half pass rush forced QB Derrick Bernard from the pocket early and often. He’s an effective scrambler — he finished the night with 42 yards on 7 carries, including a touchdown — but the pressure exaggerated his most troubling tendency. Bernard is a former professional baseball pitcher. When he’s in trouble, he reverts to a sidearm throwing motion that makes even on-target throws difficult to haul in… and, unfortunately, greatly reduces his accuracy. He finished the night 9-23 (39%), with two touchdowns and one interception. He was replaced in the fourth quarter by Javin Kilgo.
Next to consistency on the offensive line, discipline is the area of greatest need for the young River Kings. Though the night’s penalty totals were almost identical on paper — 6 for 23 yards against Quad Cities, 6 for 24 against us — most of the Steamwheelers’ fouls were committed in garbage time. The River Kings’ mistakes were early, and extremely costly — an Antwan Smith pick-six that would’ve tied the score, for instance, was nullified by an illegal defense penalty.
Finally, a renewed emphasis on special teams is in order. While it’s understandable, perhaps, that Labrecque was not called on to attempt any field goals — we were down multiple scores for most of the game — the decisions to attempt neither onside kicks nor “the deuce” was puzzling. Under the league’s new rules, the kicking team can boot the kickoff through the uprights for two additional points. It’s a low-percentage play, to be sure, but so is the onside kick. Both should at least be on the table towards the end of the game if we’re down by several scores.
Special teams did, however, provide of the night’s highlights for the River Kings. Speedster Chris Franklin returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and had an extremely productive night overall — five returns for 119 yards. Other highlights include Smith’s unfortunately overturned interception, plus a fumble recovery for a score in the fourth quarter by Diante Thomas (following a vicious hit from La’More Wise).
Overall, and despite the fireworks on the scoreboard, the game was won and lost in the trenches. Though the River Kings’ O-line improved as the game went on, they were simply overmatched in the first and second quarters by a vicious Steamwheelers’ pass rush. With little time to scan the field, Bernard was forced to dump the ball off underneath. Harden led the team with four receptions, but totaled only eight receiving yards; the night’s longest completion was 17 yards.
Next week’s game against a much-improved San Diego Strike Force squad should show us how much of this week’s performance was rookie jitters from a very young, very inexperienced squad. The Strike Force notched an impressive win on the road this Sunday, defeating Bismarck 50-36. Looking at the box score, however, this game appears to have been much closer than the final score would indicate.
Both teams relied on their ground game, running a combined 37 times (vs. 44 combined pass attempts). The difference appears to have been pass efficiency. While San Diego’s quarterback Michael Carillo posted lackluster numbers (9-17, 132 yards, 3 TD 2 INT), Bismarck’s two quarterbacks combined for a mere 5 of 27 (18.5%) and one touchdown.
The key, then, for this week’s contest will be forcing the pace. Carillo does not seem to be the most accurate passer — he was never sacked, but his passes were broken up 5 times and intercepted twice. Nor does he appear particularly mobile, judging by the box score — just 7 yards on 8 rushes. If we can get in his face early and often while controlling the run game, we should come away with a win.