Masked behind the Steamboat football team's 4-0 start and 163 points scored is the falling off of its traditionally potent ground game. Coach Mark Drake would be lying if he said it isn't a concern.
"Yeah, I'm worried," he said. "I'd be a fool if I wasn't."
After starting the season strong behind 100-yard efforts from Lonny Radford, David May and Brad Bonner in the first two weeks, the Sailors have not had a 100-yard rusher in the last two games, played against Berthoud and Montezuma-Cortez.
Radford was Steamboat's leading rusher against Berthoud on Sept. 12 with 48 yards on eight carries. Bonner was behind Radford with 36 yards on 12 carries, most of which came in the final quarter of the 20-7 win.
Against the Cortez Panthers on Friday, the Sailors had 124 rushing yards behind Bonner's 43 yards and offensive lineman Michael Herbert's 30 yards on one trick play. Steamboat could not run down the middle of the field and had minimal success to the outside.
For all of football's offensive complexities, the game is relatively simple: More often than not, if a team can't run the ball, it will be hard-pressed to win games.
Steamboat has bucked that belief in recent weeks, however. Big plays from the defense and special teams saved the team against Berthoud. Cortez contained Steamboat's running game on Friday, but the Panthers' commitment to stopping the run allowed quarterbacks May and Tyler Fosdick to find their receivers for a total of 362 yards in an easy 52-14 win.
Drake remembers years when his team didn't throw for 362 yards in one season, let alone one game. The Sailors' passing game is as dangerous as perhaps it has ever been. The combination of May's pocket presence, his receivers' ability to make catches and the offensive line's continued pass blocking improvements, has enabled Steamboat to put up 50-plus points twice this season.
But the Sailors are shooting for the playoffs, and they are unlikely to see porous defenses in Palisade, Moffat County and Rifle, the three teams from the league favored to return to the postseason.
Bonner, a junior, saw minimal time on offense last season in the Sailors' backfield. Four of Steamboat's five offensive linemen had no varsity experience at that position before this year -- and run blocking is usually the final piece to come together for young lines.
"They lack experience," Drake said.
Steamboat (4-0 overall, 1-0 in the league) travels Sept. 26 to Stocker Stadium in Grand Junction to play Palisade (4-1, 0-1), and it's clear what the Sailors are going to focus on in practice this week.