A timeout wasn’t enough to heal a vicious hit from Natrona County’s Cross True as Cheyenne East quarterback Matt Semler released a pass. Staggered and winded, he returned to the huddle for fourth down.
Standing all alone with an empty backfield, Semler called for the snap.
Again he saw pressure as he began to roll out. He looked to Ethan Ashworth, the guy who had carried East to that point.
Semler hit the ground. He peaked up from the field turf of Cheney Alumni Field to see the ball sail out of the end zone. It was over.
Natrona County then took over and quarterback Jesse Harshman iced the game with two kneels to preserve a 14-7 Mustangs win and hand East its first loss of the year Friday in Casper.
“It’s awesome,” Harshman said. “For about 24 hours we’re going to enjoy it and then we’re going to break down film and study it, then move on.”
This one-possession game that wasn’t decided until the final minute was decided by, essentially, two big plays.
First there was East charging toward the end zone for what looked like the game’s opening score midway through the second quarter.
The Thunderbirds (4-1 Class 4A) had the ball on the Mustangs’ 15-yard line facing third down. An uncharacteristic high snap sailed over Semler’s head and rolled all the way back to the 40. Semler dove on it but the ball rolled away as Natrona County’s Riley Shepperson curled it for the recovery.
Sixty-eight seconds later, the Mustangs were in the end zone.
Harshman dissected the defense in the air before capping the drive with a 1-yard sneak to give the Mustangs the lead.
“That really changed the momentum I thought,” Harshman said. “That showed us that we can drive on these guys. We had stalemates and that stuff, but that turnover sparked it.”
Natrona County maintained the 7-0 lead at the half.
The other decisive moment came after East tied the game in the third quarter.
The T-Birds put together a 13-play, 90-yard drive that took 5 minutes off the clock to knot the score at 7-all.
Forced to answer, the Mustangs did just that. Harshman capped a five-play drive with a 10-yard touchdown run on a bootleg to give Natrona County (4-1 4A) the lead for good.
“They all respect Brett (Brenton) so much that they expect him to run,” Harshman said. “That was a great fake, the line blocked well. They all set me up for success.”
It took a while for the high-powered Natrona County offense to start firing. The Mustangs didn’t gain a first down or get into East territory until their third possession. The offensive line could not block East’s Gunner Bartlett early on. The senior lineman had four tackles and two quarterback hurries in the first quarter.
While East was able to block for Ashworth on a consistent basis, the Mustangs couldn’t sustain a push. Ashworth ran for 99 yards on 16 carries and Semler ran for 47 yards in the first half.
“Their DB’s are really quick,” Harshman said. “Their D-line did a good job. Bartlett, he got penetration all the time.”
The game stayed a virtual chess match, as the teams traded field position in the early going.
While the Natrona County defense continued to bend but not break, the East defense returned to its imposing self.
The Mustangs put together a 2-minute drill just before halftime, although most of their yards were gained on a fake punt. Shepperson dropped back to punt, but saw an opening and hit the right corner for a gain of 26 yards.
“I was going to actually kick it,” Shepperson said. “Then I heard Brett (Brenton) screaming ‘Cut, cut!’ So I just cut inside and he blew up that D-end so I just took it and ran to the sideline.”
Eventually the clock wound down and Shepperson attempted a 45-yard field goal that did not have the distance.
Natrona County hits the road next week to take on Thunder Basin, which shut out Gillette 47-0 on Friday. East, meanwhile, plays at Laramie.
NATRONA COUNTY 14, CHEYENNE EAST 7
Friday, at Casper
CE 0 0 7 0 7
NC 0 7 7 0 14
NC: Jesse Harshman 1 run (Riley Shepperson kick), 5:12.
CE: Ethan Ashworth 13 run (Tyler Miller kick), 6:45.
NC: Harshman 10 run (Shepperson kick), 4:54.