HOUSTON—Who are these Cinco Ranch Cougars?
Gifted with a talented passing game, thanks to junior quarterback Gavin Rutherford and a slew of playmaking receivers in Seth Salverino, Noah Abboud, Fischer Reed and Grayson Williams, the Cougars are proving to be anything but the one-trick pony they've been thought to be, running the ball this postseason as well as they have in a long time. And after struggling to stop anyone over the last few years, Cinco Ranch has turned into a defensive savant—takeaways, sacks, tackles for loss. The whole thing.
And how about this: after one win last season, and just four total over the previous three seasons, the Cougars are 8-4 and headed to the regional semifinals after a thorough, all-around 48-13 rout of Memorial in their Class 6A-Division II area playoff game Saturday afternoon at Tully Stadium.
Cinco Ranch dusted the Mustangs (7-5) in ways that had been foreign to it in seasons past, playing complementary football and winning the turnover battle.
"The offense is picking up the defense and the defense is picking the offense up," Cinco Ranch coach Chris Dudley said.
In two playoff games, the Cougars have allowed a total of 13 points and collected six takeaways.
They forced four turnovers against Memorial: senior linebacker Nathan Rothwell had a fumble recovery, and senior safety Fordham Parks, senior tackle Rhett Rodabaugh, and sophomore safety Yetxiel Perez Gilbes all had interceptions.
For Parks, it was his fifth interception of the season. Rodabaugh's pick, he took the other way 70 yards and a touchdown.
Like last week's bi-district playoff win against Bush, Cinco Ranch had a definitive defensive stop in the red zone early in the game. Against Memorial, on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Rothwell stuffed senior running back Carson Zahn for a six-yard loss and turnover on downs to keep the score 21-0.
.@cincofb stuffs Memorial on fourth down. Senior LB Nathan Rothwell is having an outstanding game. Takes down RB Carson Zahn for a six-yard loss. #txhsfb @CincoAthletics @CougarnationJpic.twitter.com/wPCK2thO5O— Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II) 1637437849
For the second straight game, the Cougars stopped the run against teams that love to run. After holding Bush to 35 yards on 15 carries, Cinco Ranch surrendered just 10 yards on 20 carries against Memorial.
The defensive front of senior end Zach Dycus, senior tackle Bowen Cheng, junior end Riete Nesiama and Rodabaugh was strong maintaining gaps or putting pressure on Mustangs quarterbacks to rush throws.
"The takeaways just come," Rodabaugh said. "They're not really part of the game plan we have. Takeaways happen when we can open gaps to let other people through to make plays. It's a sacrifice for the team."
The Cougars' defense is more aggressive than it has been in past seasons. Because his team is not the biggest up front, Dudley has his defense doing a lot of pre-snap movement with defensive backs to fool with the quarterback's reads. The Cougars slant coverage to a weak or strong gap to muddy an offense's blocking assignments.
On second-and-long and/or third-and-long, Dudley will rush six at the quarterback. He has faith his secondary, led by Parks, can cover one-on-one.
Correction: Credit this sack to junior @rietenesiama. A key part of an impressive effort by the @cincofb defensive line this afternoon. #txhsfb @CincoAthletics @ChrisDudley40https://twitter.com/densilva02/status/1462143844586246148\u00a0\u2026— Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II) 1637461789
"We communicate and trust each other instead of trying to do too much," Rothwell said. "We all know our roles and do it well."
Offensively, the Cougars rushed 37 times for 237 yards and three touchdowns. Rutherford had 105 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. Junior running back Sam McKnight, who missed last week's game because of an eligibility issue, had 45 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.
Cinco Ranch did not attempt a pass on its opening 54-yard scoring drive. Once Memorial did start accounting for the run, that's when Rutherford lit up the bright blue sky hovering the Energy Corridor, completing nine of 16 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns, both to Abboud, to one interception.
Only four times this season has a Cougar rushed for 100 or more yards in a game. Two of those times have come during these playoffs. In the regular season, the running game accounted for only 30 percent of Cinco Ranch's total offense. In the postseason, it has accounted for 54.8 percent.
"Coaches have emphasized that we're not just a passing team," Rutherford said. "We're a running team, too. As the season keeps going, we push the run game, and when it's working, it opens up our passing game. Linebackers have to come up and pursue the run. Safeties are having to pursue the run, too. It takes a lot of pressure off me and our receivers and the O-line. Big help."
.@GavinRutherfo12 can run it. Check out this 42-yard spree. He\u2019s got 102 yards on seven carries. #txhsfb @cincofb @CincoAthletics @CougarnationJpic.twitter.com/zorpMDH6N9— Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II) 1637438113
Cinco Ranch is in the regional semifinals for the first time since 2016. Their eight wins this season are the Cougars' most since 2017.
Some of that is because of an emerging culture in Dudley's third year at the helm.
"Everybody loves each other and builds each other up," Rothwell said. "When I came here, it wasn't like that. But we've built that, and we're a better team for it."
And some of it is because of an inner drive. A fatigue from being overlooked, disrespected and unappreciated.
“Our whole goal was to wake up the people that were sleeping on us and thought we were the same team that went 0-10 (in 2019),” Rutherford said. “Those guys on those teams worked their butts off all year and it just was unfortunate how it came out. This year, we wanted to make a statement that we’re still here.”