SHERIDAN — Here come the big boys.
The buzz of anticipation surrounding Friday night under the lights at Scott Field is a little thicker this week.
Because, tomorrow night, Sheridan will be the site of one of the two 4A showdowns when quarterback Tevis Bartlett brings the Cheyenne East Thunderbirds to town. Meanwhile, Natrona hosts Gillette in Casper. Those three — East, Natrona and Gillette — are regarded as the state’s top-tier teams, with Sheridan as the remaining unknown even at 3-0.
If things play out right for the Broncs, they could be the only unbeaten left standing in 4A by Friday night’s end. At the same time, they could fall right back into the middle of the pack. While it’s unfair to call Sheridan’s first three weeks easy, it’s an understatement to call their next five tough. The Broncs enter the meat of their schedule, as head coach Don Julian says, bracing themselves for a head on collision with what may be the most versatile offense in the state in East.
Two weeks ago, East and Natrona battled in Wyoming football’s 2013 marquee game to date when East toppled Natrona 42-41 in triple overtime. Sheridan faces a trip to Gillette (3-0) in two weeks. They host the 4A defending champion Mustangs (2-1) Oct. 18.
The last time the Broncs played East they ousted the T-Birds in the 2012 4A quarters in Sheridan, corralling Bartlett in a 31-21 thriller. The contest featured a fourth-quarter sack from SHS star wrestler Cody Delk who wrapped up the 2012 4A state champion wrestler Bartlett in a play that nearly resulted in a safety and secured the win. So far this year, Bartlett and the T-Birds put up 59 points on Rock Springs in week one then 42 against Natrona before beating South 35-0 last week. Julian knows the task of stopping the mobile quarterback hasn’t gotten any easier.
“He’s a year older, got another year under his belt in getting a little bit faster and stronger, they’ve got a good quick scat back so there’s a one-two punch in the backfield, they’ve got a very good, fast receiver on the edge,” Julian said. “Offensively they’re good-sized up front and they’re really putting some points on people.”
Julian noted that East does a good job of mixing things up in play-calling, making them hard to defend. East so far has been about 50-50 run-pass on first down, he said.
The T-Birds haven’t beaten the Broncs since 2002, and further haven’t won in Sheridan since 2001. Sheridan has scored at least 40 points in five of their six wins during that span. However, in high school football such a predetermined mindset would be naive, and Julian lauded the T-Birds defense that has the team ranked No. 1 in the state through three weeks.
“They’ve been solid for several years on defense, they’ve got a really good corner who can shut people down, they really play with their linebackers downhill and get after you up front,” he said.
“Their three down linemen are all good, solid big kids so they’re just a pretty well-balanced team.”
The Broncs are working to cut out turnovers and find that complete game out of what has been an offense showing flashes of great football through three weeks. Julian hopes to rely on their ground game — averaging 193 yards per game — in order to make that happen against East.
“Offensively we want to be able to run the ball against them,” Julian said. “Our quarterback, he’s had a great completion rate at 77 percent through three games which is almost unheard of. So we want to try and stay balanced as always and sustain drives. We had two offensive turnovers last week, so we’re trying hard to secure the ball.”
The accurate first-year starter Eckard has thrown five touchdown passes, three to junior wideout Joe Shassetz. Hard-running Daniel Sessions leads the Broncs in scores with five this season while one-two punchman Colbey Bruney has two on the ground. Julian said he was pleased that the kicking game improved last week in Evanston after struggling with two failed PAT attempts against Kelly Walsh.
Still, Friday may come down to stopping East’s balanced attack, and Sheridan will have to rely on its consistent piece. The Bronc defense has played well through three weeks, twice on long road trips to Laramie and Evanston. Last week they held Evanston to 260 total yards one week after stopping Kelly Walsh at 250. Part of that success comes from the fact that Sheridan hasn’t allowed big plays in 2013. Lone scores allowed to each Laramie and Kelly Walsh were from inside the 5-yard line, and Evanston’s points were set up by Bronc turnovers.
“We’re trying hard to be very disciplined,” Julian said of the defensive focus this week. “We have an opportunity to be successful against it (East’s offense) by doing things right. That’s what we’ve been trying to do — we feel good about our defense but we’re still trying to clean up some things that we can get better at.”
Sheridan and East have a 6 p.m. kickoff Friday.
4A slate: Week 4
East (3-0) at Sheridan (3-0)
Central (1-2) at Rock Springs (0-3)
Evanston (1-2) at Laramie (1-2)
Gillette (3-0) at Natrona (2-1)
Kelly Walsh (1-2) at South (0-3)