ROUND ROCK, TX -- Football is supposed to be an American game, right?
Well, the World team had something to say about that on Wednesday night at the Palace for the third annual International Bowl, as the international players who gathered from 19 countries around the world came into the heart of football country to deliver a victory that will end up echoing to every corner of the globe when the World team players scatter to their home countries once again.
Give some credit to the US squad, though. Not a whole lot, but just a little. After seemingly sleepwalking through much of the first three quarters, the team battled back from deficits of 28-9 and 35-15 to pull within 35-29 with several minutes remaining on the back of a 59-yard catch-and-run from Ohio State signee Frank Epitropoulos, who had a strong second half, capped by a Canon Smith two-yard touchdown catch.
The ensuing onside kick bounced around before it was recovered by the World team and the US wasn't able to stop the clock with no timeouts remaining and the clock expired harmlessly after the third-down stop.
For much of the game, it was a sloppy performance by the United States, marred by eight penalties, three fumbles, and passes that sailed over the head of open receivers or were dropped.
One play was particularly indicative of the difficult US evening. After getting a stop with the World team deep in US territory late in the third quarter, Houston signee Jarrett Irving caught the blocked punt and headed to to his right with a number of blockers in front of him, looking to break a big play and the US trying to down cut into a 21-9 World lead.
Instead of the big play, irving failed to secure the football and ended up fumbling it, resulting in a five-yard touchdown pass to defensive lineman Daryl Waud, who beat Irving to the back of the endzone.
On another play, US receivers Corey Coleman and Frank Epitropoulos ran into other going for a long pass that could have been a touchdown.
Defensively, the US team gave up too many big plays to the World, including a 75-yard touchdown pass from Will Finch to Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren on a busted coverage by US defensive backs and a 62-yard run by University of Manitoba back Anthony Coombs, who earned MVP honors on the evening after going for 150 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.
The pass to Gilbert-Knorren was the longest pass play in the history of the International Bowl and gave the University of Saskatchewan quarterback who played mostly at receiver on the night the honor of becoming the first player to score touchdowns in multiple years here, a feat later matched by his teammate Coombs.
For Coombs, the game served notice that there are actually other countries that play that game, and can play it well.
We've been working so hard for this all week, and it paid off with the victory," said Coombs. "People don't think anyone can play outside of the United States. This is going to make the U.S. take this event more seriously, and it's also going to inspire tons of little kids around the world. It feels great that we did this."
Besides the anecdotal evidence, the overall stats bespoke the serious mindset from the international players -- the World held the ball for nearly 33 minutes of the game, including most of the third quarter, ougained the US 404 to 254 (178 to -2) on the ground, with much of the yardage for the US coming in desperation time. Of those 254 yards, 166 came after the game had already gotten out of hand.
To provide some perspective on just how surprising the performance from the World was, in three previous games, the international squad had never led.
They are getting better," said U.S. head coach Steve Specht (Cincinnati St. Xavier H.S.). "Coach (Chris) Merritt (Miami Columbus H.S.) and I were talking about it, and it comes to a point where we have to realize and our kids have to realize they are getting better year after year. They are studying the game, and you can't just show up because you've got a lot of talent. You still have to play the game."
In the end, the US managed to show up enough to make the game interesting in the end, but the overall performance left quite a bit to be desired and served notice to future United States team that it's worth taking the World seriously.
It's a lesson that wasn't lost on the US coach.
"What a great experience," Specht said. "The kids battled until the very end. The bottom line is you can't wait until late in the game to say, 'Hey, this is for real.' "
Malcom Brown, Texas defensive tackle -- Brown flashed early as he emerged from a scrum with a fumble recovery on the first possession of the game by the World and rumbled 34 yards. On several other plays, Brown showed off his speed in pursuit, but also came off the ball too high and lost the line of scrimmage multiple times. After the long run by Coombs, a US coach had a brief conversation with Brown, as it looked like he might have been in the wrong place on the play. He also missed a tackle on the first touchdown run by University of Manitoba back. Playing mostly the nose tackle position, Brown showed why he projects better as a gap-penetrating three tech, as he had some issues holding up at the point of attack. All told, it was a disappointing performance for one of the most highly-rated commits in the entire 28-man class.
Caleb Bluiett, Texas defensive end -- Of the four Texas players at the game, Bluiett had the best day, showing off his skills as a pass rusher and in run defense, turning in a sack and a big fourth-down stop that kept hope alive for the US. However, it looked like he may have missed his run fit on the long run by Coombs that earned him an earful from a coach when he got to the sideline. Overall, though, there were some positives to build on for Bluiett and was good to see his strong performance in practice on Saturday translate to the game.
Tim Cole, Texas linebacker -- The former Brenham star played all three linebacker positions on the day and had a couple quarterback hurries, including one that forced an intentional grounding penalty. Other than that Cole had a quiet evening, but he didn't noticeably have the same issues in coverage that plagued most of the other US 'backers.
Daje Johnson, Texas all-purpose back -- Johnson could have had a much bigger day if Jarrett Solomon had been able to get him the football more consistently, as the Bishop Gorman signal-caller overthrew Johnson twice. When Solomon did finally put the ball on the money as Johnson separated nicely on a flag route, the Texas signee looked like had some trouble finding the football and allowed it go off his hands. On his only carry of the game, Johnson was dropped for a five-yard loss on a jet sweep just as it looked like he was going to turn the corner. Had Sean Maguire looked in his direction on the first play of the game for the US, Johnson could have had a touchdown catch, as he was open, but the Florida State signee opted to find Temple signee Romond Deloatch instead.
Gimel President, Auburn defensive end -- After failing to flash during Saturday practices, President earned MVP honors for the US in the losing effort after dominating the World offensive line at times, getting into the backfield multiple times, registering three tackles for loss among his four tackles and a sack. Using his combination of quickness and power, President was the best defensive player on the field for the United State and it wasn't particularly close.
Frank Epitropoulos, Ohio State wide receiver -- Nearly the MVP after approaching 100 yards receiving and coming close to earning MVP honors. He kept the US in the game with his late 59-yard catch and also scored on the 12-yard touchdown catch late in the third quarter. While he had a tough day of practice on Saturday, especially going against Stanford signee Alex Carter, Epitropoulos showed some ability to separate, solid speed, and just enough wiggle to make a couple defenders miss.
Anthony Coombs, University of Manitoba running back -- As mentioned above, Coombs was the MVP for the World team and was extremely deserving of the honor, as he was the most impactful player on the field. His 19-yard touchdown run in the first half showed off his combination of tough running, slipperiness, and balance as he broke multiple tackles before dragging a defender into the endzone. Not to be pegged simply as a between-the-tackles back, Coombs flashed his top-end speed on his long touchdown run, when he took the edge and outraced the US into the endzone. On a night of unexpected surprises, the fact that the best running back belonged to the World team was perhaps foremost.
Check out more photos of the Horns at the International Bowl by heading over the BON Facebook page.