The Rocky Mountain Grizzlies wrapped up the non-conference portion of their schedule Friday night by blasting the Lusk Tigers 35-6 at the RMHS Field, exploding for three second-half touchdowns to turn a close game into a rout.
Coach Richard Despain said the Grizz learned some valuable lessons during their loss at Upton the week before, then applied the knowledge during practice and at Friday’s game.
“It took playing a good team to show us what we needed to improve on, so in that light it was good to play Upton early,” he said. “They definitely showed us several areas to improve in – and we are improving. We’re still learning and still getting better.”
Despain said the offensive line is learning, recognizing and carrying out blocking assignments better, which “results in holes” for the running backs, and likewise, he said, “the backs are understanding the offense better so our timing is better.”
On the other side of the ball, Despain said, the Grizzlies played “a very solid defensive game.”
“We gave up a couple of plays here and there, but we avoided the big play,” he said. “They only had one series they scored on, and that was a short field.”
The first quarter was mostly a punting contest as both teams tried to get some offense established. The quarter ended in a scoreless tie.
“It took us a while to get our feet under us,” Despain said. “Our timing wasn’t sharp to start the game. One play will kill a drive, and that’s what happened to us. Later, they got their timing down and found their feet and let the blocks set up. We also threw the ball more and took advantage of that.”
An interception by Cole Simmons set up the first touchdown of the game early in the second quarter as the Grizzlies drove 56 yards to score. After some short passes from Simmons to Tristan Jewell and a Lusk interference penalty, senior running back Gehrig Sweat burst right for 13 yards to the Lusk 18. Lusk then appeared to have stopped the drive, but on fourth and eight Sweat broke free to the right again and launched himself into the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown run. Simmons kicked the PAT and Rocky led 7-0.
Two long returns, one on the ensuing kickoff and another return later on a punt, gained Lusk a field position advantage, and the Tigers were able to complete a 28-yard drive with a touchdown, overcoming a fourth-and-seven situation with a well-timed pass completion to set up a one-yard quarterback sneak by Kyle Anderson.
The Tigers went for two and the running play was snuffed, leaving Lusk down 7-6 with 4:03 to play in the first half.
A nice kickoff return by Ethan Price gave the Grizz the ball in Lusk territory, and Simmons gained a first down with a 13-yard keeper. Lusk’s Ryan Gilkey intercepted Simmons, however, to end the threat. Lusk drove to the Rocky 20 but stalled, giving the ball up on downs.
The Grizz had only a little more than a minute to operate but moved quickly down the field, covering 80 yards in eight plays: a 25-yard swing pass to Sweat, a nine-yard reverse by Jewell, a two-yard run by Sweat, a 12-yard halfback pass from Treyson Frost to Jewell, a one-yard run by Sweat, an incomplete screen pass, a sack for a loss of four and a touchdown pass from Simmons to Price.
Facing third and 13 with just four seconds left, Simmons rolled left and found a leaping Price on the left side just over the goal line. The sophomore went high for the ball and brought it down. The PAT put Rocky up 14-6 at halftime.
“It was a jump ball to Ethan,” Despain said. “I like the athletes we have. I figured we had nothing to lose. Ethan went up and got it.”
The Grizzlies made some halftime adjustments and moved the ball well in the second half, Despain said. Though he fumbled later in the drive, Simmons set an aggressive tone early in the third quarter, Despain said, with a quarterback draw and a power run. He added that coaches put the Grizzlies in an I formation and “ran behind our senior linemen.”
“They opened holes, and that opened up the passing game,” the coach added.
Following the initial fumble, the Grizz scored three touchdowns in the second half to pull away from the visitors from Niobrara County. Simmons scored on a one-yard quarterback sneak, Frost hit pay dirt from eight yards out and Sweat broke free for a 34-yard touchdown run.
Rocky finished with 314 yards of total offense to Lusk’s 118, passing for 135 yards and rushing for 179.
Simmons completed 7 of 16 pass attempts for 123 yards, Frost one of one for 12. Jewell caught four passes for 42 yards, Price two for 62 yards, Sweat one for 24 yards and Brian Crawford one for seven.
Sweat led the Grizz in rushing with 88 yards on 14 attempts, a 6.3-yard average. Simmons added 37 yards on 10 carries, Frost 35 yards on eight carries and Crawford 11 yards on three attempts. Jewell carried once on a reverse for 10 yards.
Defensively, Crawford finished with six solo tackles, five assisted tackles, three tackles for a loss and one interception. Garrett Vezain added 13 assisted tackles and one solo stop, Wyatt Horrocks nine assisted tackles and two solo tackles.
Tough conference opener
Nothing like starting out with the best. The Grizzlies will travel to Cokeville Friday to open 1A West conference action against the perennially tough Panthers. Though Upton/Sundance powered to the state title a year ago, Cokeville had won four of the previous five championships.
Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.
“They’re going to be disciplined, they’re going to be steady, they’re not going to panic,” Despain said. “Their coach (Todd Dayton) just got his 300th win. I’m looking for my third. Whatever happens, he’s seen it. That tradition is there.
“They’re consistent and well-coached. They’ll know their jobs.”
Rocky is 0-11 against Cokeville over the years, according to Wyoming-football.com, and will be looking to end the streak. Cokeville won 21-12 last season, also at home.
Despain said the Panthers will run a 4-3 defense with cornerbacks that play tight and will run a lot of man-to-man coverage. On offense Cokeville will employ a double tight formation with a full backfield and run a triple option with plays running “in every imaginable direction,” Despain said, adding, “They’ll try to catch you over-committing.”
By David Peck