Kelly Walsh head coach Aaron Makelky’s always been a history buff. On Friday night, in his first Oil Bowl experience, he added his name to an all-too-familiar history book.
The Trojans went across town with the energy of a rivalry game and the urgency of a season at its tipping point only to come away short. Natrona County, with confidence and poise, took advantage of opportunity and walked away successful against its rival for the fifth consecutive time. Makelky, meet the champions.
Defending champion Natrona County regained its footing after last weeks’ second-half loss to top-ranked Thunder Basin to successfully defend Cheney Alumni Field with a 27-0 shutout. Kelly Walsh, having missed its share of opportunities, returned to the East side with a rivalry loss and its playoff ambitions still in obscurity.
History was able to repeat itself, the Mustangs winning their 42nd out of the 55 Oil Bowls, because the Mustangs once again trusted their defense. Almost a full calendar year after allowing just 44 first-half yards, the Mustangs allowed only 40 yards and two first downs through the first 24 minutes. Perhaps more important than the statistics, however, were the stops leading to Natrona County’s early 17-0 lead.
“We haven’t had a lot of shutouts in this game over the years and that takes a team effort,” Natrona County head coach Steve Harshman said. “Good night, great game and a great turnout.”
A three-and-out that started at Kelly Walsh’s own 6 gave the Mustangs solid field position to start the second quarter. After their first two drives stalled out, junior quarterback Harrison Taubert marched the Mustangs down the field. Taubert broke open the scoring by improvising, having collected the shotgun snap off his home turf, and sprinting opposite of his blockers over the goal line. The Mustangs got the ball right back at the Kelly Walsh 23 when senior Isaac Palomo read quarterback Trenton Walker and jumped the corner route. Four plays later Taubert dove over the goal line to turn a scoreless tie into a 14-point lead in less than 2 minutes.
Any hopes of a first-half answer from the Trojans fell flat because they couldn’t find a rhythm against the Mustangs’ staunch defense. Kelly Walsh went three-and-out on its final five possessions of the opening half. That didn’t help the underdogs’ comeback efforts or attempts at gaining field position.
“We prepared all week,” senior Johnathon True said. “We’ve got great coaches. Coach (Tyrone) Fittje got us in the right places. We just had to study and get ready and we were right where we needed to be when we needed to be there.”
Natrona County added an insurance field goal with 7.7 seconds left when senior Ben Hoppens came on to kick a 30-yarder from the right hash. Kelly Walsh held to allow only that field goal, thanks to senior Dominic Gray’s first sack of the season that took the offense out of rhythm with the clock winding down.
At times the Trojans caused stumbles with inside pressure, crashing down on running lanes. At other times it was senior Kevin Anderson coming off the edge to pressure Taubert, resulting in one sack for a loss of 7 that forced a Mustangs punt.
That pressure was all the visiting side could do. The Mustangs’ taller, more in-sync receivers held the advantage most of the night, but numerous Taubert throws bounced off frigid fingertips and to the turf. And with the offense unable to consistently move the ball, the Trojans’ defense was tasked with making more plays on increasingly fatigued legs.
Natrona County’s first-half scoring drives came after a second, third and fifth consecutive three-and-out, respectively. The Trojans’ defense came energized in the second half only to eventually break after more time on the field. Natrona County senior Dante Wallace started the Mustangs’ third second-half drive with a 33-yard run. Taubert followed that with a 12-yard run. That drive ended empty, however, when Kelly Walsh senior Jevon Davis caught up to the in-route and intercepted Taubert in the end zone.
Eventually, a familiar Kelly Walsh mistake put the game away. An errant snap on a punt forced the Trojans to retreat and recover inside their own 5 — for the second straight game. And just as Central didn’t need any help from there last week, Wallace marched in on the next play to make it 24-0 in the fourth quarter.
“This feels great,” Taubert said. “We’ll celebrate this one for 24 hours and then just prepare for next week.”
Kelly Walsh’s attempted rally fell short of the end zone with an interception from Taubert and the home side’s celebration began with just less than 9 minutes remaining. A second field goal from Hoopens on the following drive served as icing on the cake.
Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans