The winner will advance to the third round of the Class 8A playoffs next week
The Riverview High football team was able to avenge one long-standing loss last week, beating Steinbrenner High 31-7 on the road to remain in the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 8A playoffs. Steinbrenner had beaten the Rams in the playoffs in 2019.
In front of the Rams (9-2) now is the chance to avenge another loss, this one much more recent. The Rams will take on rival Venice High (10-1) on the road, where they lost 42-7 on Oct. 29.
The two programs are familiar with one another. Not only do they play every year, sometimes twice, but they also feature familiar faces. Venice senior quarterback Ryan Browne was Riverview's quarterback last season. Venice senior wide receiver Omari Hayes was the Rams' top pass-catching threat in 2020. The transfers add fire to an already intense rivalry.
The Indians got the better of the Rams in the first game by wearing down the Rams' defense and not allowing Riverview's offense to land any explosive plays, save a touchdown pass from junior quarterback Will Carter Jr. to senior wide receiver Johnell Williams. But the game was tied at halftime; it was only in the second half that cracks began to form in the Riverview defense. Smithers noted after the game that the defense was on the field too much, something the Rams will attempt to prevent this time.
Playing a full game was a sentiment shared by senior linebacker Tyre Smith on Tuesday. Smith also believes the team has the mental edge over the Indians.
"They're going to come in here arrogant since they beat us like that before," Smith said. "We're going to surprise them. We're going to hit them in the mouth the whole game. We'll be ready."
To do that, the Rams will have to slow down the Indians' potent attack. Browne has put up strong numbers, throwing for 2,061 yards and 25 touchdowns against five interceptions. Of those 25 touchdowns, 10 have gone to Hayes, who has 51 catches for 689 yards. The Indians' other big-play threat in the passing game is senior Jayshon Platt, who has 47 catches for 799 yards and 10 touchdowns. But it's the Indians' running game that wore out the Rams in game one. Venice ran for 362 yards against Riverview. Senior running back DJ Escort accounted for 294 of those yards on 40 carries. The Rams didn't have an answer for the ground game and it cost them.
If Riverview wants to hang with the Indians, the third-ranked team in Florida regardless of classification according to MaxPreps, stopping Escort and the running game will be a priority. So will be keeping the Rams' own offense on the field. Venice can't run the ball if they don't have the ball, after all. That's where the Rams can turn to their own running game to help the defense's cause. Riverview has leaned on senior running back Jay'den Birch in big situations. Last week's first-round playoff game against Steinbrenner High was no different. Birch ran for 88 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn't alone, though. The Rams also gave sophomore Ahmad Hunter a chance to shine, and he came through, rushing for 128 yards. Hunter entered the game with 153 rushing yards on the season. His emergence both gave Birch a chance to rest and gave the defense a different look. If Birch and Hunter can replicate their performances against Venice, it would go a long way toward a Rams victory.
Riverview will also need its other star players to prove why they're stars. Rams senior wide receiver Jaron Glover is committed to Michigan State; he'll likely be shadowed by Venice High senior defensive back Elliot Washington for most of the game. Washington, who is ranked the No. 178 player in the 2022 class by the 24/7 Sports Composite, announced his top-five schools via Twitter on Wednesday: Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, Penn State and Michigan State. Whether it's in the passing game or the running game via reverses, Glover will need to win some battles against Washington. Coach Josh Smithers says he can do it.
"When you look at him, you can just tell (he's special)," Smithers said of Glover last week. "He's got these big, strong legs. He's so strong when he runs, the way he pushes off the ground. He's big but he's athletic enough that you know he can run by you if you don't tackle him as soon as he catches the ball. He's always got a chance to take a play to the house. He can create a one-play drive. That's what makes him so dangerous."
Sophomore defensive back/wide receiver Charles Lester III will also likely need to have a big impact. Lester III is rated a four-star prospect by Rivals and holds offers from Michigan State, West Virginia and Indiana among other schools. Lester III had a 56-yard touchdown catch against Steinbrenner.
In addition to star players stepping up and the offense controlling the ball, Smithers will look for his defense to continue being disruptive in terms of turnovers. Last week, Smithers urged his defense to focus on that in practice and it paid off against Steinbrenner. The Rams came though. Senior safety Charlie Cooper intercepted a Steinbrenner pass in the red zone in the fourth quarter and senior linebacker Brady Bloom recorded a fourth-down sack of Steinbrenner late in the game, giving the ball back to the Rams and sealing the game for good.
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