BIG HORN — It all comes down to one game for Big Horn: a rematch against Pine Bluffs — the only team to knock the Rams down this year — with a state championship on the line.
Neither team is a stranger to these types of games. They both won state championships last year — Big Horn in 2A and the Hornets in 1A. It is the second battle of the season but only the third matchup ever between the two programs. Big Horn beat Pine Bluffs 41-14 in a 2003 semifinal game.
It also marks the fourth time in five years the Rams are making the trip south to Laramie, with titles in 2013 and 2016. For Big Horn head coach Michael McGuire, this trip makes eight state appearances in the past 12 years.
Pine Bluffs won by the thinnest of margins in Week 3 at Big Horn, 22-21 on a 2-point conversion in overtime. McGuire said the coaching staff watched film of the game this week but hasn’t put a ton of weight on it because both teams have changed in the last two months.
Big Horn lineman Seth Mullinax had to exit the Week 3 game after the first quarter due to a concussion. Mullinax is ready to go for Saturday’s matchup, but Big Horn may not have another key player. McGuire said playmaker Kade Eisele will likely be a game-time decision due to a hip injury suffered in last week’s 12-7 win at Cokeville. Eisele plays running back, linebacker, kicker and punter for the Rams.
The teams are fairly evenly matched on paper, but Pine Bluffs has the advantage in top-tier talent. Haize Fornstrom, the Hornets’ star quarterback, shoulders the heaviest burden of any player in 1A. He has been more than up to the task, leading Pine Bluffs to a 10-0 record and 14 consecutive wins dating back to last season.
Big Horn assistant coach Kirk McLaughlin said the defense focused largely on stopping the run against Cokeville last week but now has to prepare more evenly for both the run and pass due to Fornstrom’s dual-threat ability.
“He’s explosive; he throws the ball well,” McLaughlin said. “He’s dangerous in the open field. He’s tough to stop.”
Pine Bluffs passes the ball more than Cokeville but still butters its bread through the running game. That was especially true in the Week 3 matchup, as the combination of Fornstrom, Isaiah Montanes and Brian Steger totaled 243 yards on 52 carries. Fornstrom only completed three passes for 27 yards in that game but has thrown nine touchdowns and just one interception this season.
Big Horn’s first game against the Hornets was its worst performance of the year. The offense was able to move the ball fairly well in the first half, taking a 14-0 lead into halftime, but completely shut down in the second half. Quinn McCafferty had success throwing the ball, completing seven of 12 passes for 124 yards and three touchdowns against the normally stingy Hornets coverage, but the Rams amassed only 234 total yards of offense, their lowest total of the year.
A similar story transpired for the Big Horn defense. The Rams held Pine Bluffs scoreless and forced a couple turnovers in the first half but couldn’t stop the Hornets’ rushing attack in the third and fourth quarters.
Pine Bluffs has an excellent defense, but the Rams showed last week that they can move the ball on anybody. They gained 363 yards against Cokeville’s top-ranked defense, including 232 yards rushing.
Still, the Hornets allow less than 3 yards per carry and held Upton-Sundance to 127 yards of offense in last week’s 14-7 victory. The Big Horn defense played just as well, though, giving up only 133 yards to Cokeville.
Both teams have made it through the gauntlet of the regular season and two playoff games. They have honed their schemes, shored up their techniques and added a few wrinkles to the game plan. One team will repeat as champion, the other will go home brokenhearted. It’s likely to be another low-scoring, closely contested game. The Rams wouldn’t have it any other way.
The game kicks off at 1 p.m. Saturday at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie.