Friday night football fight: Truckee at Fernley
Sierra Sun sports editor
The prospect of Fernley ending its six-year football playoff drought became more realistic with a 21-15 win over league rivals Lowry last weekend, but knocking off Northern 3A powerhouse Truckee tonight, at home, would top an impressive one-year turnaround for the Vaqueros.
Through three league games in the 2004 season, Fernley (3-3, 2-1 Northern 3A) has already surpassed its win totals of last season when it finished 2-7 overall and 1-6 in the Northern 3A.
“More importantly, they’ve improved a lot from the beginning of this year,” said Truckee head coach Bob Shaffer. “Last week, against Lowry, they looked really good. They’re really coming into their own.”
Since the Vaqueros were crushed in consecutive games 40-8 by 4A Fallon and 55-7 in their Northern 3A opener versus Spring Creek, Shaffer said he has noticed a gradual improvement watching the team on film in league wins over Sparks and Lowry. Fernley’s other win came against 2A Yerington to open the season.
Not only has Fernley dealt with the frustration of not making the playoffs since 1998, the Vaqueros haven’t beat the Wolverines (3-1, 2-0 Northern 3A) since 2001.
Moreover, the 2001 game, also played at Fernley, is the Vaqueros only win ever against Truckee since it joined the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA) in the early 1980s. Shaffer said he expects this year’s game to be just as challenging as his team’s 38-36 loss three years ago.
“We haven’t seen a Fernley team of this caliber since 2001,” Shaffer said. “They’ve got great size across the front on offense. They’re very physical and athletic, and they’ve got a couple great running backs.”
The strength of Fernley’s offense is the running attack, anchored by the backfield tandem of Travis McCurry and Cody McDougal, but the element of surprise makes the Vaqueros dangerous ” and it’s all set up by an efficient running game.
“They pound it, pound it, pound it and try to lull you to sleep ” then they’ll play-action pass,” Shaffer said. “Their quarterback throws the ball well, and he carries out his fakes for play-action.”
Shaffer is referring to Dan Henderson, who is seventh in Greater Nevada passing yardage (732), but he has completed less than 50 percent (.431) of his passes. Henderson threw for 119 yards to help move the chains against Lowry a week ago. Ironically, it was Dan’s older brother Steve who engineered Fernley’s most recent playoff run in 1998.
The difficulty of stopping a Fernley offense that has the ability to successfully throw or run is compounded by a confusing formation that is always in motion.
“They do a lot of shifting ” spreading people out and bringing them back in,” Shaffer said. The challenge gets slightly tougher for Truckee in this respect because the Wolverines had only four days to prepare for the first time in 2004.
“There’s a lot to learn in a short week for us,” Shaffer said. “To go down there with one less practice kind of hurts us. You just have that one less day for your kids to get to the point where they feel comfortable recognizing what they see in front of them and what their key should be.”
The foundation of the Fernley offense ” what Shaffer described as a double-Wing, double-Tight End formation with short-motions, play-action and a lot of counter runs ” is basically the same as in years past, so defensive preparations on a short week were not extremely demanding for the Wolverines. The significant difference this year is more movement by the Vaqueros’ offense before the snap to confuse the defense.
On the offensive side of the ball, however, the Wolverines have had only four days to prepare for an entirely new defensive scheme. After running a five-man front (50 defense) for a few seasons, head coach Dave Hart has presented a 3-5 (three down linemen, five linebackers) look to his opponents in 2004.
“There’s nobody else in this league that runs this defense,” Shaffer said. “For us, this is something totally new, and we had only a couple days to try to figure out how we were going to scheme it offensively.”
Shaffer said the Vaqueros defensive unit rallies to the ball and swarm tackles well, but to beat Truckee, Fernley will have to find a way to stop Truckee’s multi-dimensional, nearly flawless (only one turnover in its last three games) offensive attack. The uniqueness of Truckee’s team this year, in addition to the fact that not one player goes both ways, is the equal distribution of the ball to various playmakers.
Truckee has three running backs with more than 100 yards rushing ” not to mention Truckee’s leading receiver Jamie Maehler (17 catches, 360 yards, 4 touchdowns) also has more than 100 yards on the ground and two rushing touchdowns.
The Truckee aerial attack is no exception, and quarterback Paul Tierney’s throwing accuracy and keen decision-making is a key element in that equation. In four games, Tierney has eight touchdown passes, 846 yards and zero interceptions. Maehler has been on the receiving end of four of those scores and could be considered Tierney’s favorite target, but Tierney has also completed passes to seven other teammates for 486 yards.
Shaffer has seen his once-experimental offensive strategy transform into a fine-tuned machine in 2004.
“There’s a lot more cohesiveness (this year),” he said. “Last year was the first year they ran this (type of) offense. I don’t know if the kids did or didn’t buy into it, but they just didn’t seem like they knew what they were supposed to do. But as each game goes by, they’re really at a point now where they run the offense well.”
On the Fernley sidelines, Hart has been the head coach for 26 years ” the longest same-school tenure of any football coach in Greater Nevada. There won’t be too many surprises for the veteran Hart, who has seen Truckee run the Wing-T offense for nearly 20 years.
“He’s seen us for a long period of time, so it isn’t like a first-year coach that isn’t sure what Truckee’s going to do,” said Shaffer, who adopted the existing Wing-T offense when he took over the head coaching duties nine years ago. “He knows what we’re going to do, so that would be an advantage on their side.”
A Fernley win over Truckee tonight would put the Vaqueros in no worse than a first-place tie in the Northern 3A (depending on the outcome of Sparks at Spring Creek). For the Wolverines, it’s their first major road trip this season and an important gut-check “on the road” to the ultimate goal.
“If we’re going to play in a state championship game, right now it’s scheduled to be at UNLV,” Shaffer said. “If we go, we’re going to have a long bus ride ahead of us. Every good team has to prove itself on the road.”
Then again, a loss to Fernley on the road could be a good omen for Truckee. The 2001 Wolverines team rebounded from the Fernley loss to win the 3A state championship.
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The Truckee girls’ cross-country team raced to a runner-up finish at today’s Class 3A Northern League championships.