SHERIDAN — False start penalties and two untimely interceptions ended promising drives for Natrona County on Friday night.
The Mustangs needed only four plays to score on their initial drive. Additional touchdowns did not come as easy.
After the second interception, head coach Steve Harshman leaned over to his quarterback and son, Jesse Harshman, on the sidelines of Homer Scott Field.
“You’re going to get another chance,” he told his son, “and you’ve got to battle back.”
And battle he did.
The senior went 11-of-13 for 164 yards and two touchdowns in the final 3 minutes as the Mustangs’ improbable comeback forced overtime against two-time defending state champion Sheridan. The Broncs later won 37-34 on their first play of overtime.
“To give our guys credit,” Steve Harshman said, “they battled back and it’s tough. I was proud of our guys.”
The younger Harshman came into the game averaging 148 yards per game with six touchdowns and no interceptions. He finished Friday night 27-of-36 for 323 yards and three touchdowns.
His final two scores came in the offense’s two-minute drill. Harshman marched his team down the field and found Ben Acres twice on fade routes in the end zone to finalize the comeback. He even made the pre-snap decision to fake a spike with 6 seconds remaining and throw to Acres, who beat his fooled defender.
“We were just telling ourselves that our best will be good enough to score right here,” Acres said. “Why would you not just go all out for 20 seconds or however long we had?”
The Mustangs would not have gotten to that point if not for the running of Brett Brenton and the blocking of the offensive line. The line created running lanes and Brenton flowed through them, especially on delays and sweeps.
Brenton averaged 149.5 yards per game before his 200-yard performance on Friday. He finished with 30 carries and a touchdown.
It was a battle that took on more similarities of a field skirmish as players crumpled to the ground. The unseasonably high temperatures, humidity and smoke in the air from the wildfires in Montana proved problematic.
Brenton, in addition to Sheridan’s Aaron Sessions, Parker Christensen and Kyle Custis all suffered from cramps in the second half.
“We were all cramping up,” Christensen said. “At one point I went down and another guy next to me was laying down and cramping up.”
By the end of regulation it was clear the Natrona County defense was winded.
The Mustangs limited Custis to just 56 yards through four quarters. Acres, as well as senior lineman Logan Moncur, sacked Broncs quarterback Aaron Woodward a combined five times.
“It was super frustrating,” Custis said of running against that defense. “I got mad a few times.”
In the end, the Mustangs’ head coach was left thinking about the penalties and turnovers. His team could have seized a 14-0 lead after their first two drives, which would have made for a drastically different start. Instead, Sheridan tied it and the game stayed even throughout.
Natrona County had 75 penalty yards on 10 infractions. Sheridan was not penalized until a late hit on the final drive of regulation.
“We had chances to probably knock them out, but credit to both teams, it was a battle.” Steve Harshman said. “They had a chance to knock us out and we came back.”
While proud of his team and their effort, Harshman implored the Mustangs to take the next step. After all, the rematch of last year’s state championship was only the third game of the season.
Natrona County is at Laramie on Friday before consecutive games against Cheyenne East and at Thunder Basin before hosting the Oil Bowl.
Each game poses its own threat and unique challenge. And the Mustangs showed on Friday night that they are ready for any challenge.
“I think the sky is the limit for our guys,” Harshman said. “We have such a high ceiling, we’re going to get so much better.”