Gillette head coach Andrew Rose might have wanted to check and make sure there was only one No. 23 for Natrona County on the field Friday night. That’s because the Mustang senior was seemingly everywhere for the Mustangs.
The 5-foot-9, 173 pound running back/free safety finished with four interceptions, scored two touchdowns, blocked a field-goal attempt and recovered a fumble to lift Natrona County (4-3) to a much-needed 35-2 Homecoming victory over the Camels at Cheney Alumni Field.
“Kaeden had a great game,” NC head coach Steve Harshman said. “He should be national player of the week.”
He probably wouldn’t get much argument from Rose or the Camels.
Wilcox’s big night began on the offensive side of the ball when he caught a pass over the middle from Tyler Hill and raced to the end zone for a 42-yard touchdown. It was his first touchdown catch of the season.
Turns out he was just getting started.
Wilcox ended the Camels’ ensuing possession with a diving interception on a deep ball. A Gillette receiver had gotten behind him, but a Natrona County defensive lineman pressured starting quarterback Aiden Dorr to throw before he could set his feet and Wilcox was able to close the gap and end the drive.
The Mustangs then put together one of their best drives of the season with junior running back Luke Spencer capping a 10-play, 83-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown run for a 14-0 advantage with 3:53 remaining in the first quarter.
“We had been struggling up front with just getting off the ball and blocking,” senior lineman Brendyn Nelson said. “This week we went back to the basics and focused on being solid. And it showed tonight.”
Gillette (3-4) showed some life in the second quarter after a snap sailed over Natrona County punter Wyatt Powell’s hand and went out of the end zone for a safety. The Camels later moved to the NC 35-yard line when Wilcox came up with his second interception in highlight fashion. He tipped backup quarterback Evan Vandom’s pass into the air and was able to secure the ball as he was falling to the ground.
“That second interception was probably as good a play as you’ll see,” Harshman said. “He had it covered well and he tipped it to himself. That’s not anything you coach. A guy learns that playing in the backyard.”
After Ian Carter returned the favor with an interception of Hill and returned it to the NC 13, the Mustangs defense stiffened and forced a 33-yard field-goal attempt. But Wilcox and Nelson broke through the line and tipped the ball to keep the Camels off the scoreboard.
Natrona County extended the lead to 21-2 with 1:12 remaining in the half on an 8-yard run by Wyatt Powell. The Mustangs’ nine-play, 80-yard drive was highlighted by a 26-yard run from Wilcox on a fly sweep.
Brady Tompkins fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Wilcox recovered at the Gillette 28. Three plays later Billy Brenton caught Hill’s pass between two Gillette defensive backs at the 5-yard line and fought his way into the end zone for a 28-2 halftime lead.
“Field position, turnovers and penalties,” Harshman said. “We won all three of those things tonight and that was really important.”
The Wilcox Show continued in the second half.
On its opening possession of the half Gillette drove to the NC 12 when Vandom threw the ball to the front corner of the end zone. But Wilcox jumped in front of the intended receiver for his third pick of the night.
He then finished a 13-play, 80-yard drive with a 1-yard diving touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Natrona County, which came into the game averaging 166.0 rushing yards per game, finished with a season-high 220 yards on the ground. Spencer led the way with 111 yards while Wilcox added 58 on eight carries.
“We worked hard on the line of scrimmage all week in practice,” Harshman stated. “And we finally started to have some success running the ball.”
Wilcox put the finishing touches on his night with another interception in the end zone as the Camels failed to score on four trips inside the red zone.
“I’ve never had four picks in one game before,” Wilcox admitted. “I just had to stay deep and listen to my coaches. This was a big win for us and it was a total team effort.”
The victory snapped a two-game losing streak for the Mustangs – 17-14 at Rock Springs and 27-0 at Sheridan – heading into next week’s showdown at Thunder Basin, which improved to 6-1 with a 55-22 rout of Laramie.