DAYTON — Friday’s matchup between the Tongue River Eagles and the Lusk Tigers could turn into a war of attrition.
The Eagles hit the road to Niobrara County for their first away game of the season, and they’ll face an opponent that could look very similar to themselves. That could be a good thing. Tongue River sees a grind-it-out type of offense every day in practice.
But it could also be a bad thing if the Eagles don’t get the ball.
Both Tongue River and Lusk utilized heavy ground attacks last week in their opening-round matchups, wins for both teams. Lusk took down Burns in a 26-12 contest.
The Eagles’ strategy in a 14-6 win over Wright was simple: run, run, run.
Tongue River ran the ball 55 times against Wright, the fourth-most of any 1A team last week. Four different players carried the ball at least five times for the Eagles, with three of them rushing 14 times or more. They finished with 117 yards on the ground, and Tongue River possessed the ball for two-thirds of the game.
“We executed some really key short-yardage runs on third down,” Tongue River head coach Steve Hanson said after Friday’s win. “I thought our backs by committee did well; our quarterback made really smart decisions.”
Lusk’s offense didn’t look much different than Tongue River’s last week, either.
The Tigers spent their entire first game on the ground, passing the ball just one time all night. They rushed the ball 49 times for 268 yards, and their 5.5 yards per carry was third in 1A’s opening weekend.
Five Lusk players ran the ball last week; three had at least 10 carries, and two of them had more than 77 yards. James Stone’s 126 yards was fifth best in the class.
Defensively, the Eagles and Tigers were even closer, statistically.
The two sides finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in total defense last week. Tongue River allowed just 178 yards of offense, while Lusk gave up just 209.
Aside from No. 1 Cokeville’s 18-0 shutout of Mountain View, Tongue River’s 6 points allowed was tied with Upton-Sundance for fewest in 1A. Lusk’s 12 was second.
Lusk allowed just three first downs in the contest, a clear advantage over Tongue River’s nine, and both teams were plus-two in the turnover battle.
Friday’s matchup will come down to which team can grind on the other longer and harder.
While Stone has big-play potential for the Tigers, Hanson isn’t going to vary much from the ground-pound, collective running style that worked for the Eagles in Week 1.
Defensively, the Eagles return All-State lineman Kyler Heiling from suspension, a big bonus in the pursuit of getting Lusk’s offense off the field and putting the clock back on Tongue River’s side.
“He was an All-State defensive end last year,” Hanson said of Heiling. “He was really the only junior that started last year, and he’s a heck of a player. Getting him back, but also we’ve built some depth because we had to live without him for the past several weeks. That’s a big confidence booster for us.”
Friday’s contest might be another battle to put points on the board, but the Eagles hope their disciplined Week-1 victory travels well as they look to open the season 2-0 for the fourth-straight year.
The Eagles and Tigers kick off at 6 p.m. Friday in Lusk.