Moe Loller scans the football field after plays for proof of execution.
Elk Grove High School’s offensive-line coach wants to see the carnage of flattened opponents in the wake of his linemen nicknamed “Hammerheads.” Behind that line, the Thundering Herd has hammered home the point that setting a tone with a “ground-and-pound” running attack is the ticket to a championship, even in an era of the pass-happy spread offense.
“When we play, I’m looking for bodies on the ground from pancake blocks,” Loller said. “That makes me a happy man.”
Loller is downright giddy these days. Elk Grove (12-0) has powered into Friday’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinals against Oak Ridge on the strength of its line and the leading rusher in Northern California.
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Ryan Robards has chugged for 2,501 yards and 38 touchdowns, both school records for a program that has produced numerous prolific running backs. Strong stuff from a converted receiver.
We let teams know we’re coming at them and will hit them in the mouth. They have to stop us.
Ryan Robards, Elk Grove running back
Elk Grove graduated its leading rushers and turned to Robards, one of the section’s most versatile players as a cornerback, safety, kicker, punter and return specialist. The senior was plugged into the backfield and bought in on the run-heavy theme from the start. Once the ball is in his hands, Robards looks for an opening and then takes off like jet.
“It establishes a theme when you run like we do,” Robards said. “We let teams know we’re coming at them and will hit them in the mouth. They have to stop us.”
For decades, teams ran their way to championships. But this is a new era. Field turf is the norm, making playing conditions – even in rain – ideal for spread-passing attacks that have swept the country.
Still, there’s always room to run. Top-ranked Folsom is riding a state-leading 28-game winning streak not just behind its passing game, but also by salting teams away on the ground.
It comes down to maximizing your personnel and staying loyal to your beliefs, Elk Grove coach Chris Nixon said.
“Running the ball does demoralize (defenses), and that’s the goal and the key for us,” he said. “That’s our strength. It’s as much a mentality as anything.”
And if opponents load the box and dare the Herd to throw? Then throw, Nixon said. Elk Grove quarterback Jayden Machado has kept opponents honest by passing for 20 touchdowns.
“Everyone knows No. 9 – Robards – is coming, and they game plan for him,” Nixon said. “They still have to stop him.”
Elk Grove is so into the ground game even the “Hammerheads” are involved as ball carriers. With recent games decided in the fourth quarter, Nixon and Loller asked “Hammerheads” Lau Ta’amu and Trevor Reinwald if they wanted to take a hand off near the goal line. They nearly did back flips at the suggestion.
Ta’amu scored on a three-yard plunge and now calls himself, “The Flyin’ Samoan.” In another game, Reinwald barreled in from four yards. He now goes by the “Stompin’ German.”
Said Robards: “Those guys deserve it. When I’m on a big run downfield, they’re right there with me.”
Other members of the “Hammerheads” include Diego Cervantes, J.C. Cornelio, Jon Pochop and Jake Bellecci and fullback Aidan Martinez.
Run by committee – Spread offense is the fad, but teams other than Elk Grove are enjoying success out of the run-heavy wing-T formation. While Elk Grove is as subtle as a forearm to the facemask, many wing-T offenses use deception on handoffs.
The D-III section field is wing-T dominant. Placer (12-0) is in a semifinal against state powerhouse Central Catholic of Modesto (12-0) because the Hillmen have rushed for 4,503 yards this season, an average of 375 a game. Owen Scott has rushed for 1,473 yards, Jared Halbert 1,146 and Waylen Cozad 858. Those three have combined for 49 touchdowns.
The wing-T is who and what we are.
Terry Stark, Inderkum coach
Inderkum (12-0) is in the other semifinal against another wing-T team in defending champion Oakdale (11-1). Inderkum’s leading rusher is Raekwon Turner with 1,498 yards and 19 touchdowns.
“The wing-T,” Inderkum coach Terry Stark said, “is who and what we are. Always done it this way.”
In D-II, there are no wing-T teams but there are running backs, including three prolific ones in the Rocklin vs. Antelope semifinal. Evyn Holtz has sprinted for 1,670 yards and 30 touchdowns for Rocklin (9-3) while Antelope (12-0) is paced by Elijah Dotson (1,512 yards, 15 scores) and Devaughn Silver (1,011, 11).
In the smaller-school divisions, a “run to win” theme is also prevalent.
Liberty Ranch advanced to its first D-IV title game against Sierra of Manteca behind 3,190 rushing yards. Bear River seeks to defend its D-V title with a victory over Sonora with a balanced attack but, “we try to put teams away on the ground,” co-coach Terry Logue said.
In D-VI, Bradshaw Christian – seeking its fifth championship since 2008 – faces Hilmar for the title. The Pride has rushed for 4,353 yards and 60 touchdowns, averaging 9.1 yards a carry. Mateo Bromstead (1,056 yards) and Jared Kanipe (1,031) are the leading rushers.
“We’ve always run the ball,” Pride coach Drew Rickert said. “It fits who we are, and it’s worked.”