SHERIDAN — Defense wins championships. Cliché, sure, but not inaccurate.
The Sheridan Broncs take on the Natrona County Mustangs for a 4A state championship Saturday, and Sheridan head coach Don Julian thinks the game will come down to defense.
Since the Wyoming High School Activities Association moved the state championships to War Memorial Stadium in Laramie in 2009, defensive teams have found a way to take home the hardware. Of the eight champions over that span, only once did a team finish outside the top two in 4A in points per game allowed — Cheyenne East finished fourth in 2013. But East finished second in yards per game allowed that same season.
Five of the previous eight champions allowed the fewest points in the class, including Sheridan during its last two championship runs. Natrona has won three titles during that stretch, and it had the top defense all three times.
Looking at yardage, the Broncs actually finished first only once in four championship appearances under Julian — last year. They finished sixth, fourth and eighth in the prior three championships, respectively.
But at the end of the day, it’s come down to keeping opposing offenses out of the end zone, and the teams that do just that tend to find themselves still on the field in November. The last four teams standing this season ranked as the top four defenses in 4A.
“You can go back years and years, and the teams that are playing for championships have great defenses,” Julian said. “There are offenses out there that are outstanding that don’t win championships.”
If the name of the game is defense, though, Natrona has a definite edge coming into Saturday’s matchup.
The Mustangs allow the fewest yards per game (196.8), fewest yards per attempt (3.8) and, most importantly, the fewest points per game (7.5). In their first matchup with the Broncs — a 37-34 overtime win for Sheridan — the Mustangs held Sheridan to 113 yards on the ground, the Broncs worst game of the season. Natrona actually outgained Sheridan offensively by 175 yards.
Sheridan’s defense hasn’t been poor, by any means, but sits a couple spots back of its championship foe. The Broncs are third in yards per game (248.6) and points per game (11.3), and they’re second in yards per attempt (4.3).
Even with the Mustangs outgaining Sheridan in the Week 2 contest, it came down to defense.
Natrona converted twice in the red zone in the game’s final minutes to force overtime, one of which came on fourth-and-goal. But Sheridan got the stop it needed on the first overtime possession and kept the Mustangs out of the end zone. The Broncs turned the stop into a touchdown and a victory.
That’s what Julian expects to dictate Saturday’s championship: a big defensive stop.
“We’ve won a lot of games with our offense,” the coach said. “And maybe we’ve won a championship or two with our offense. But never have we won a championship with a poor defense.”
Both defenses have tall orders ahead. Natrona and Sheridan also bring the state’s top two offenses to War Memorial Stadium; both score more than 45 points per game.
You could go down the list of 4A statistics — Natrona edges Sheridan here; Sheridan has the advantage there. These are clearly the two best 4A football teams in Wyoming.
Whispers of a 2016 championship rematch have traveled across the state since Sheridan won last year’s game 56-28. Those whispers have been closer to screams down in Casper.
The Mustangs had a gap to fill. That gap was a demoralizing 28 points. When Natrona won the title in 2014, Sheridan was the one chasing — two shutouts during that season had the Broncs gritting their teeth.
The personnel inside the Natrona locker room no longer have teeth. They’ve gritted them down to the gums. Their eyes have been locked on the Broncs since last year’s drubbing; they want revenge.
And here we are, set up for a familiar matchup between two teams that know each other quite well. The last eight championships have featured at least one of these two squads. Sheridan has four titles during that stretch; Natrona has three. They’ve played eight times in four seasons. The Broncs are on a four-game winning streak against the Mustangs. Before that, Natrona took six straight in the matchup.
“It’s like two brothers trying to figure out who in the end is going to be the toughest guy on the block,” Julian said of the rivalry.
The 4A state championship that most expected at the start of the season has come to fruition. To be the best, you have to beat the best. Determining which team is the best is up for debate.
We’ll have a definitive answer Saturday.
“I think it’ll be a game for the ages,” Julian said.
Saturday’s 4A state championship begins at 4 p.m. at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie.