Sophomore wideout keeps Crusaders moving ahead
The sophomore jinxed Wheaton-St. Francis Friday night.
As a freshman in 2013 Ricky Smalling drew little attention as a football player. That’s not surprising, seeing as how lower-level teams tend to operate with more anonymity than their varsity counterparts.
But Brother Rice coaches knew what they had in the 6-foot-1, 185-pound wideout, and Crusaders boss Brian Badke didn’t hesitate to elevate Smalling to the varsity this season. Undoubtedly the Spartans wished he hadn’t.
Smalling was a big man in the Chicago Catholic League crossover as he caught 11 passes for 150 yards, one of the better performances by a Rice receiver in a while. Two of his grabs went for touchdowns, including a 70-yard play that put the visiting Crusaders ahead for keeps in the third quarter.
“Ricky Smalling really stepped up,” Badke said after Rice ruined St. Francis’ homecoming by pinning a 35-29 setback on the hosts. “We didn’t have a deep threat [last year] after Chris [Rozell] went down with an injury.
“You’ve got to have a guy who can beat double coverages and stretch out the defense. Ricky’s a play-maker, a big-time player, and Alex [Alarcon] is going to deliver it to him.”
Alarcon, a senior who took some lumps a year ago, enjoyed perhaps his finest hour as the Crusaders’ No. 1 signal-caller as he completed 80 percent of his 25 passes for 225 yards. Four other players also caught throws from Alarcon.
“Alex played well and it’s important for him to get going like that,” Badke said. “He’s a running threat and passing threat and we need him to perform like that.”
With Alarcon and Smalling making sure the Spartans had to guard against the passing game, avenues opened for Marcus Jones. The Northern Illinois University-bound tailback augmented Rice’s aerial attack with 178 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Jones (35-yard run) and Smalling (24-yard catch) both tallied in the opening period, their TDs sandwiching one by St. Francis’ Nate Zito (10-yard reception). Jones reached the end zone again in the second quarter, but buoyed by their homecoming crowd the Spartans scored twice more, including on a 66-yard hookup between Peter Fassnacht and Matthew Hanson.
With Zito snaring a conversion pass after the third touchdown, St. Francis entered intermission in front by one.
“We didn’t [always] play so hot in the first half,” Badke said. “No. 1, St. Francis is a pretty good football team and No. 2, it was a new environment for us.”
That was true in both a literal and figurative sense. In regard to the latter, the Crusaders were coming off their first win over Loyola Academy in six years — which immediately followed a Week 2 victory over neighborhood rival Marist.
With both triumphs serving as payback for 2013 defeats, there was understandably a great amount of emotion attached to them. Dealing with the aftereffects of such heady accomplishments is something with which Rice has been rather unfamiliar in recent years.
But just when some questions about the Crusaders’ fortitude might have been raised, they were answered decisively in a positive manner.
Rice’s defense, in particular, shone as it hamstrung the Spartans on all but one second-half possession — and St. Francis’ breakthrough came too late to create a game-changing rally. Spearheading the Crusaders’ prevention unit were Jordan Boyd (five solo stops, one assist, interception, forced fumble), Greg Bernier (five solos, one assist, two pass breakups), Steven Robinson (five solos, fumble recovery, tackle for loss), Mike McGinley (four solos, one assist, two tackles for loss) and Jim Opoka (four solos, one assist, two tackles for loss, interception).
Also contributing were Julian Blain (four solos), Kevin Furlong (three solos, two assists, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hurry) and Robert Woods (two pass breakups, interception, one hurry). As a team Rice recorded eight pass breakups, seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage and four turnovers, which helped negate the Spartans’ 38 completions and 402 passing yards.
“That was the turning point,” Badke said, referring to the Crusaders’ second-half stonewalling of St. Francis. “We made our mistakes [earlier], but we got a two-touchdown lead, settled down and were carrying out assignments a little better.
“You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing and execute. That comes from [having] some experience — I believe that [our guys] are confident and feel they can play and compete with anyone, and that’s good to see.”
So far three teams in Illinois have been unable to solve Rice. St. Laurence gets the next crack at the Crusaders when it visits Joe Johnston Field on Friday. The Vikings are coming off a 27-21 loss at Bishop McNamara.
“It’s a tough road ahead of us and we have a long way to go,” Badke said. “But as long as we do the things we’re supposed to do we have a chance [to prosper].”
Brother Rice 14 7 7 7 — 35
St. Francis 7 15 0 7 — 29
First downs 20 20
Yds. rushing 202 43
Yds. passing 225 402
Total yds. 427 445
Att./comp. 25-20 61-38
Fumbles/lost 1-1 2-1
Had intercepted 1 3
Penalties/yds. 10-11 55-45
Punts/avg. 6-39.2 4-38.5
BR — Ricky Smalling 24 pass from Alex Alarcon (Matt Pikowski kick)
WSF — Nate Zito 10 pass from Clint Bobowski (Trevor Jungles kick)
BR — Marcus Jones 35 run (Pikowski kick)
WSF — Matthew Hanson 66 pass from Peter Fassnacht (Jungles kick)
BR — Jones 8 run (Pikowski kick)
WSF — Zito 2 pass from Bobowski (Zito pass from Bobowski)
BR — Smalling 70 pass from Alarcon (Pikowski kick)
BR — Jones 20 run (Pikowski kick)
WSF — Michael Shaw 31 pass from Bobowski (Jungles kick)
Brother Rice Rushing: Jones 25-178, Alarcon 8-24. Passing: Alarcon 25-20-225. Receiving: Smalling 11-150, Kubil 4-26, Jones 3-24, Blain 1-18, Houston 1-7.