DAYTON — For the first time in six years, the Thunder Bowl travels to Tongue River High School. The Big Horn High School football team will make the 40-minute drive and battle the Eagles in Dayton for the first time since 2012.
The 57th matchup between the schools features two teams coming off wins last week, but the programs otherwise haven’t had much in common this season.
No. 1 Big Horn stands at 3-0 in conference, 5-0 overall. The Rams have won all their games by at least 30 points and are coming off arguably their best, most complete performance of the season.
Big Horn handily defeated second-ranked Pine Bluffs 42-7 on the road last Friday. The Hornets had given up less than 300 yards in their first four games combined and hadn’t allowed a point going into last week’s matchup. No matter. The Rams accumulated more than 450 yards of offense, 310 of those on the ground.
Big Horn quarterback and linebacker Quinn McCafferty said the team still has offensive areas to improve on but is confident in its ability.
“We always go into a game respecting our opponent, but we know we can put up numbers like that against anyone,” McCafferty said.
Big Horn completely shut down the Hornets’ run game as well. Pine Bluffs managed a mere 54 yards on 29 carries against Big Horn, not a good sign for the run-heavy Eagles offense.
Tongue River stands at 1-3 in conference, 1-4 overall. Friday caps off Homecoming Week for the Eagles and is the final conference home game of the season. Tongue River picked up its first win of the season last week, a 14-9 victory at Southeast thanks in large part to an exceptional defensive effort.
Tongue River head coach Steve Hanson called the Rams one of the best 1A teams he’s seen in his seven years coaching in Wyoming. He said Big Horn has great athletes at all positions, particularly its linemen.
“They’ve got athletes at every spot, but it’s not just their skill positions,” Hanson said. “You could put lots of different guys behind that line and they’re going to gain yardage just because of the way that line blocks.”
To stay competitive, Hanson said the Eagles have to play gritty, physical ball. They will try to control the clock with their rushing offense and limit long scoring plays by the Rams.
“We know we’re not going to be able to hold Big Horn down the whole time,” Hanson said. “We know that, but if we can take away the big play, force them to drive the length of the field, force them into a situation where we have an advantage, or put them in a couple third-and-longs, put them in some different situations — that’s going to be the biggest thing.”
Tongue River’s Luke Stutzman said Big Horn is the toughest 1A team to face because of the variety of great athletes the Rams possess.
“That’s what it comes down to,” Stutzman said. “They prepare hard and they’re full of athletes.”
On game days at home, Tongue River gathers as a team for lunch, usually at the Buckshot Saloon in Ranchester. The players then head over to the school about three hours before kickoff.
They have individual position meetings shortly after arriving, then go through personnel on offense, defense and special teams before getting personal prep time and warming up on the field.
Stutzman said the locker room is usually quiet initially, but as game time approaches, players get more pumped up, usually listening to hip hop or classic rock music.
Big Horn head coach Kirk McLaughlin said the Eagles have a solid dual-threat quarterback in Stutzman, along with a physical line and stable of running backs.
After the top-notch road performance last week, McLaughlin said his team will focus on not getting complacent.
That shouldn’t be too difficult Friday night.
“It’s always fun to play against Tongue River,” McCafferty said. “With the Thunder Bowl coming up, it’s a big game.”
McLaughlin is looking forward to the rivalry game as well. Growing up in Sundance, he said the field in Dayton was his favorite location in the state to play.
“They’re going to give us their best shot, we’re definitely going to give them ours,” McLaughlin said. “It’s going to be fun to play on their field again.”
“It’s going to be a wild atmosphere,” he said. “Any time you get a rivalry game on a Friday night, anywhere in America, it’s a good night. It’s going to be a great night for football. We’ve got a beautiful venue, we’ve got the best team in the state at home for our Homecoming (and) couldn’t ask for a better opportunity.”
The game kicks off Friday at 6 p.m. at Tongue River High School.