BIG HORN — In almost every Big Horn football game the last few years, the Rams have entered as favorites, the team with a target on its back. Big Horn gets every team’s best shot, as they all try to take down Goliath.
The same could be said for Cokeville, a state powerhouse for decades. So what happens when two Goliaths meet? The answer will be revealed in Friday afternoon’s 1A semifinal playoff matchup.
Friday will be a true test of strength versus strength. The Rams, with their overwhelming offense, ended the regular season ranked third in the state. The Panthers, sporting a dominant defense, have been ranked No. 1 all year.
Both teams breezed through their quarterfinal matchups last week, defeating their opponents by a combined score of 93-0. Cokeville is outscoring its opponents by 27 points per game this year and has won every game by at least 18 points. Similarly, the Rams have outscored their opposition by an average of 31 points each week.
The last game between the two teams happened way back in 1988 in the 1A state championship, which Cokeville won 35-0. They have only played four times, with the Panthers winning three of those matchups.
At this point, everyone in the state knows what to expect from Cokeville and its legendary coach Todd Dayton: a disciplined, run-heavy offense and a technically sound, tenacious defense.
All teams know what’s coming, but few have been able to stop the Panthers during Dayton’s nearly four-decade tenure.
The Panthers have won a mind-boggling 20 state titles under Dayton, the last coming in 2014. Dayton has a 316-59 record in his coaching career at Cokeville, far and away the most wins and games in state history, not to mention an 84.3 win-percentage.
Dayton again has his team in top shape this season. The Panthers are third in 1A total offense and have only given away the ball eight times, fewest in the state. Cokeville runs the ball more than 85 percent of the time and has a three-pronged attack consisting of quarterback Bentley Johnson and running backs Anthony Peterson and Rick Nate. Each of them has more than 500 rushing yards and double-digit touchdowns on the season.
Cokeville’s style is “old school at times, but they’ve added some wrinkles throughout the years that have been good for them,” Big Horn head coach Michael McGuire said. “They just execute what they do at a really high level.”
The other side of the ball is Cokeville’s calling card this year. The Panthers defense has been nearly impenetrable, ranking first in sacks, tackles for loss, rushing, passing and total defense. They are also first in points allowed, giving up a meager 4.2 per game. The Panthers haven’t allowed more than 12 points in a game this year and have four shutouts, including last week’s 42-0 victory over Southeast.
None of Cokeville’s opponents have had anything approaching Big Horn’s offensive capability, however. The Rams are first in points scored, rushing, passing and total offense. Statistically, Quinn McCafferty is the top passer in 1A; Kade Eisele is the top rusher and scorer; Kade VanDyken is one of the best receivers; and Will Pelissier is one of the best runners and receivers.
The Rams only have 10 turnovers this year, but McGuire stressed ball security against the well-disciplined Panthers.
“We can’t count on them to make mistakes for us to win the game,” he said. “We’ve got to win some of those one-on-one battles.”
Big Horn begins the 472-mile trek to Cokeville Thursday afternoon and will spend the night in Kemmerer before heading over for the game Friday. The Rams, like most Wyoming sports team, have experience with long-distance travel. They played at Kemmerer last year and had a 1 p.m. start in Riverton earlier this year against Big Piney.
The heavyweight battle decides who gets a shot at the state championship next week. It is the toughest road game of the year for Big Horn, but McGuire seemed relatively at ease.
“I think we’re capable of playing with anybody we step on the field with,” McGuire said. “It’s really just a matter of, ‘Who’s going to make the plays on game day?’”
The game starts Friday at 1 p.m. in Cokeville.