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The Cinco Ranch Cougars won their first playoff game since 2016 with a 44-0 rout of Fort Bend Bush in their Class 6A-Division II bi-district playoff game Friday at Rhodes Stadium.
KATY—Cinco Ranch coach Chris Dudley could sense progress.
Even though the previous two seasons produced records of 0-10 and 1-7, respectively, the third-year Cougars coach knew things were going in the right direction during the spring and summer. Players felt it, too.
They just needed proof.
Cinco Ranch got it in their 35-14 Week 1 win over defending District 13-6A champion College Park. And it was confirmed in, oddly enough, a loss, though a competitive and eye-opening one in a 32-28 setback to then-No. 7 state-ranked Tompkins in Week 5.
So, while Friday's 44-0 Class 6A-Division II bi-district playoff rout of Fort Bend Bush at Rhodes Stadium may have shocked some—many?—it was of no surprise to the Cougars.
"That College Park game was huge from a belief standpoint," Dudley said. "As a coaching staff, until you see it happen, you still have a bit of hesitancy on if we were really ready to bounce back from 0-10 and 1-7. The program has come a long way through these last three years. It means so much to these seniors who saw us through it. They came through, never wavered, stayed with the process on and off the field, and to see them celebrate a playoff victory … it's a real special night."
.@cincofb coach @ChrisDudley40 talks about his first head coaching playoff win tonight (44-0 over Bush), the Cougars\u2019 turnaround from 1-17 the last two years to 7-4 this year, and more. #txhsfb @CincoAthletics @CougarnationJ @KatyISDAthleticpic.twitter.com/ypsX9C9D2b — Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II)
In their first playoffs since 2017, the Cougars won their first playoff game since 2016. They are 7-4 so far this season. The previous three seasons, Cinco Ranch was a combined 4-24.
"We started from the bottom," said senior defensive lineman Zach Dycus, who had two sacks against Bush. "We had to work. We didn't have the size, we didn't have the speed, we didn't have the talent. We came out and worked every offseason. We got bigger, we got faster, we got stronger. Now we come out, dominate. We do what we do."
It was the first playoff win as a head coach for Dudley, whom Dycus said "has been the light in the tunnel for us."
"It's a combination of the culture we have off the field," Dudley said. "The family atmosphere, and the core values of accountability, commitment, being tough and being disciplined. On the field, we've got experienced guys who've gotten better each year, more stability as far as the offensive and defensive systems, and it's really shown this year. It's good to have our program back in games like this. We just want to keep this thing going."
Typically a prolific pass-first offense, Cinco Ranch came out against a stout Bush defense running the ball, early and often. Even without starting junior running back Sam McKnight, who was unavailable to play.
Junior Eric Eckstrom, who converted from safety to running back during the summer, stepped in and played heroically in McKnight's place, rushing for a game-high 105 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. He also caught two passes for 45 yards.
Cinco Ranch junior running back Eric Eckstrom.Dennis Silva II | VYPE Media
By the time Cinco Ranch attempted its first pass, Eckstrom, who entered the night with 211 yards and no touchdowns on 50 carries in 10 games, had scored two touchdowns. On the Cougars' opening drive of the game, which he finished off with a six-yard scoring run, Eckstrom had 61 rushing yards.
"I'm blessed that I was able to have this opportunity," Eckstrom said. 'Working north and south, you have to pick up yards where you can get them. When you see green field, head that way. Shoutout to the O-line. The coaching, they got us prepared. The receivers put in work on their blocks. It was a whole team effort."
Dudley said he was proud of Eckstrom running the ball so well against a Bush defense that allowed an average of 101.3 rushing yards per game during the regular season.
"He's a gamer," Dudley said. "We wanted more toughness this year at the running back spot, so we moved Sam over and Eric over (from defense). He's a tough, hard-nosed kid. He's not afraid to lower his shoulder and fall forward. He's got good patience back there and lets things develop in front of him."
Junior RB Eric Eckstrom gets @cincofb on the board. 7-0, 3:50, 1Q. Big drive for the converted linebacker. Had 61 yards on eight carries that drive. #txhsfb @CincoAthleticspic.twitter.com/cSx57iS4Rc — Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II)
Instead of the dynamic passing game setting up the run game, it was vice versa for the Cougars. Cinco Ranch junior quarterback Gavin Rutherford, two games removed from setting the program's all-time single-game records in passing yards and passing touchdowns, only attempted three passes in the first half for 40 yards and a touchdown to junior halfback Colten Michalec, but completed seven of nine passes in the second half for 143 yards and a touchdown to senior receiver Seth Salverino.
Rushing yards accounted for only 30.3 percent of Cinco Ranch's total offensive yards in the regular season. In building a 21-0 first-half lead, the ground game accounted for 60 percent of the offense.
"They're a physical defense and do a lot of press man coverage on the edge," Dudley said. "You've got to make them pay for that and run the ball if they're going to press up. A lot of ours was tough yards inside too, not just the edge. Our offensive line did a great job of moving people up front."
Defensively, Cinco Ranch was all over Bush's running game. Senior running back Adrian Cormier, a Weber State commit and District 20-6A's second-best rusher, was held to four yards on five carries, all in the first half.
The Cougars had two takeaways on an interception by senior defensive back Odera Nsobundu and a fumble recovery by senior defensive tackle Rhett Rodabaugh, as well as a blocked punt by Michalec.
BIG stop by @cincofb as @OderaN12 picks off Tyler Hilder in the end zone. That\u2019ll cap the first half as the Cougars lead 21-0 at the break. Dominant first half for Cinco Ranch. #txhsfb @KatyISDAthletic @CincoAthletics @CougarnationJpic.twitter.com/yUk2Rtob1T — Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II)
Cinco Ranch, even without star linebacker Kasey Murry, who was out with a concussion, surrendered just 107 total yards. The run-oriented Broncos, who finished their season 5-6, had 15 carries to 24 pass attempts.
"We wanted to strangle them," Dycus said. "We wanted to suffocate them. We wanted to make them uncomfortable and do what they didn't want to do. We were lighting them up every time. Our mindset this week was something I've never seen before as a three-year letterman. That was heart, that was wanting execution on everything. This game was everything for us."
And as far as what's next?
"Pick up the pen and write the next chapter," Dycus said. "We're not done here."
Cinco Ranch is off to a 2-0 start this season and has already surpassed its win total from 2019 and 2020, combined.
They're sick of losing. Absolutely tired of it.
One win, total, in 2019 and 2020 will create that sentiment within players competing for a program typically rich in tradition and success.
Words are one thing, however, but Cinco Ranch is going out and doing something about it, off to a 2-0 start after Saturday's 20-15 win over Aldine Davis at Legacy Stadium.
"We're tired of losing," junior quarterback Gavin Rutherford said. "We've been putting in the work, like 7-on-7, building that chemistry that started last year. We just keep building. This year, everybody's bought into the same goal, and that's to win every game we can, compete every play, every second of the game. Win."
.@cincofb junior QB @GavinRutherfo12 discusses the Cougars’ 20-15 win over Aldine Davis tonight and the 2-0 start t… https://t.co/Rg2MAChisO — VYPE Houston (@VYPE Houston)
The most telling sign things are different in Cougar Country? Cinco Ranch won a game because of strong defense and despite a subpar showing from a prolific passing attack. A year ago, a bad passing game would have been cause for defeat, as the defense was far from reliable.
But this isn't last year.
The Cougars held the Falcons to only 4.3 yards per play. On Davis' final drive, starting with good field position on its own 42-yard line and trailing by five points with less than three minutes left, the Cougars forced a turnover on downs on four consecutive incompletions.
Whether it was senior linemen Zach Dycus and Bowen Cheng up front, or senior linebacker Kasey Murry and a physical secondary highlighted by senior Fordham Parks and sophomore Taytum Johnson, the defense relentlessly swarmed the ball and held an opponent to 15 or fewer points for the second consecutive game.
"They are hungry for running to the ball," said acting head coach Curt Faigle, who led the Cougars in place of head coach Chris Dudley, who was absent for undisclosed reasons. "There's a tightness to them. We had a great opponent tonight, and our offense didn't have the best night. That had everything to do with our opponent. But we still found a way to eek it out."
Last season, if Rutherford and junior receivers Noah Abboud and Seth Salverino weren't lighting up the scoreboard, Cinco Ranch was in for a long night.
Times have changed.
Rutherford completed 14 of 26 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown and the offense had only 196 total yards, but the defense stepped up and kept the Falcons at bay.
.@cincofb senior DB @Fordham_Parks with the crushing tackle for a loss. #txhsfb @CincoAthletics https://t.co/Cued9S3guP — Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II)
"We've got a lot of guys who are sick of losing," Murry said. "All kinds of guys stepping up who want to win. It's been a drought two years in a row. We're just sick of losing."
The Cougars also got some semblance of production from the run game, which compiled 26 yards on 20 carries. It's not much, but the positive yards were timely, as Cinco Ranch used junior Sam McKnight, who has admirable instincts and does well protecting the ball, to sustain drives, keep the chains moving and drain clock whenever the passing game wasn't happening.
McKnight, who grinded out 17 yards on 15 carries and caught five passes for 64 yards, rushed for two touchdowns, and has three this season. That already matches the Cougars' entire number of rushing touchdowns last season.
"It's so good," Rutherford said of the run game, practically letting out a sigh of relief. "We know that if we can establish the run, the passing game is through the roof. I think a lot of credit goes to the offensive line. They've been putting in the work. In the weight room, outside of the weight room. It's a brotherhood. That's what I love to see. It rubs off on everyone else. We pick each other up and lift each other up."
Cinco Ranch has a pair of nice wins to its name. The Cougars beat a 2020 district champion in College Park handily, 35-14, in Week 1. Rutherford threw for 263 yards and three touchdowns. Then Cinco Ranch earned a tough win against an athletic Davis team.
"We feel like we deserve this," Murry said. "We've put the work in all offseason, and we deserve to win."
Aldine Davis’ run game has gotten nothing going against @KaseyMurry33 and that @cincofb front seven. #txhsfb https://t.co/sa10FRa8Kc — Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II)
>> MURRY'S BACK: Murry suffered a torn ACL injury around this time last year that kept him out of the 2020 season. He said he's taking it day by day and is not yet 100 percent healthy but getting there. Murry had 16 total tackles and a sack in Week 1 and 12 total tackles against Davis. "It's rare to get a guy like Kasey, as an underclassman, to be the voice, the leader, the alpha," Faigle said. "He was that before his injury, and he still had captain status all last year, even going through the injury. So, to have him healthy is invaluable."
>> NOT EXACTLY: Faigle, who has been coaching at Cinco Ranch since 2013, said 2020 did not feel like the one-win season that it was. There was a lot to build upon. "There was a lot of adversity," Faigle said. "We felt like we had a great plan, we were in a lot of the games. As coaches, we knew we were playing a lot of young guys. Everybody comes back, and we're excited. There's a lot of guys that have seen a lot of live bullets and had some skins on the walls. I think it just feels different knowing that everybody's back, and that bunch of young kids we had last year are now veterans, and the right types of veterans."
>> CROSBY STARS: Senior receiver Dylan Crosby had a great game for the Cougars, catching four balls for 78 yards and a touchdown.