Natrona County entered Friday’s game with Class 4A’s top defense. Through three games the Mustangs had allowed an average of just 95 yards per game and two touchdowns.
Granted, the first two of those games were against the two teams that missed the playoffs last season. But the third was a defining 34-7 win over defending three-time state champion Sheridan.
A new challenge faced the Mustangs on Cheney Alumni Field in the Laramie Plainsmen. No team the Mustangs had faced previously had the offensive explosiveness and pension for breaking big plays quite like the Plainsmen.
Laramie ran for 279 yards against Kelly Walsh to open the season and 306 against Gillette a week earlier. Quarterback Jason Upton still has the state’s longest play from scrimmage after his 95-yard touchdown run against the Trojans.
“They got some good football players, they’ve got a nice team,” Natrona County head coach Steve Harshman said. “I thought our guys tackled well, pursued well, and feel we just didn’t give them the chance to get this thing opened up.”
Natrona County (4-0) allowed just 30 total yards in the first half, with 11 of those coming on the ground.
The Mustangs line forced a stalemate at the line of scrimmage while their lateral speed frustrated Upton and running back Baxter Tuggle.
Laramie (2-2) ultimately scored twice on the Mustangs with two passes. The first came on a missed communication in the secondary that left senior receiver Preston Buszkiewic all alone in the end zone. The second came as the Plainsmen varsity marched down the field against the Natrona County junior varsity late in the fourth quarter.
The Mustang defense also scored a touchdown in the first half when a low snap to Tuggle in the end zone stayed on the ground. A pile of confusion formed, out of which came junior Karl Williams with the football. That came after Hunter Brandt tipped a pitch to Tuggle in the back field and fell on the loose ball deep in Laramie territory.
“We got after them pretty good and put the pressure on them,” Harshman said. “Again, I think we tackled well so it was good.”
Another key component was the continued special teams domination by the Mustangs. They blocked two punts on Friday, bringing their total to three in the past two games, and continued to earn prime field position for the Natrona County offense.
“We have a great coaching staff,” junior Isaac Palomo said. “Coach (Rosie) Brown knows his stuff. He knows what to do. So he’ll see some stuff and then we’ll know what to do with all of our studying.”
Palomo’s 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half was just 4A’s second kick return for a score this season. Palomo credited his blockers for allowing him to run the length of the field untouched on his way to the end zone.
Between that return, Williams’ fumble recovery and a chip field goal from senior Jhett George, the Mustangs defense and special teams picked up when the offense couldn’t capitalize. Despite starting with prime field position on multiple drives, the Mustangs offense struggled to score. They gained just three first downs before their final drive of the first half. That drive stalled on a penalty and ultimately ended on a quick kick that sent the game to halftime.
Powered by Palomo’s kick return, the Mustangs offense spurted to life in the second half. Dante Wallace broke multiple tackles on his way to a 27-yard score before sharing carries with senior Wyatt Yetter, sophomore Morgan Pickett and junior Ryan Sorenson.
“We were more confident in ourselves,” junior Johnathan True said of the offense’s improvement. “We were zoned in and ready on our assignments. We were just ready to do what we were supposed to do. That was the big difference.”
True underlined the room for improvement the offense needs to make in the upcoming week. The Mustangs stare at an important three-game stretch beginning with Cheyenne East on the road before hosting undefeated Thunder Basin followed by the 53rd annual Oil Bowl against Kelly Walsh.
East’s lone loss came to Thunder Basin, the only other unblemished team in 4A. The Thunderbirds lead the state in forced turnovers with 11 while the Bolts are coming off a 23-13 victory at Sheridan. That could put the Mustangs in a peculiar situation come rivalry week against Kelly Walsh, which lost on the road to Rock Springs.
Natrona County, Thunder Basin and East have just one loss between them. Four teams in 4A are 2-2. That leaves little wiggle room in the standings, meaning each of the following three games all represent one-game playoffs.
“Every week, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” Harshman said. “I think, again, that’s why we focus on ourselves. That’s why we have to stay on this trajectory of getting better and building more depth and taking care of bodies, staying healthy.”