My advance for the Class 4A state championship game between third-seeded Gillette (9-2) and No. 1 Casper Natrona County (11-0) ran here today. Here are some things that didn’t make the story, or some thoughts that were expounded upon.Natrona won the first meeting 47-7 on Sept. 19 in Gillette.
Camels coach Vic Wilkerson said his team suffered from its own miscues and missed opportunities early in that meeting. In particular, he mentioned an interception and a snap over the punter’s head that resulted in a safety.
“We have to control our turnovers,” Wilkerson said. “Natrona has taken advantage of short field and turnovers all year long and they did the same things against us. We can’t put our defense in bad situations where (the Mustangs) only have to go 30 or 40 yards.
“When you’re in that situation, all it takes is one missed tackle and the guy is gone for a touchdown. … We can’t afford those self-inflicted wounds against a quality opponent like Natrona.”
Wilkerson also talked about the crucial role special teams will play in the field position battle.
“We have to have the field position be in our advantage and make them drive 80 yards,” he said.
I asked both Wilkerson and Mustangs coach Steve Harshman about Gillette receiver Talon Nelson. The senior is a bona fide big-play threat and has averaged nearly 20 yards per catch this season. He averaged 24 yards per grab last season.
“He’s an explosive player who is tough to contain,” Wilkerson said. “Teams have used bracket coverage on him and done some really different things, but he’s still found a way to get open and make things happen.”
Natrona will likely counter Nelson with senior cornerback Logan Wilson, who is a playmaker in his own right. He had a state-best eight interceptions last fall and is tied for the state lead with five this season.
“Nelson is a big threat and our No. 1 concern,” Harshman said. “We’ll probably match Logan Wilson up on him. The thing that Gillette does that no one else does is stretch the field. A lot of teams dink and dunk or go down the sideline, but Gillette presses you across the field left and right, deep and shallow.
“(Nelson) can catch the deep slant and turn it into big yards. Their slant is brutal because it’s so hard to defend.”
A slant was how Gillette got to today’s game. Nelson caught a slant from quarterback Cale Miessler — who is one of six players suspended from this game — and turned it into a 20-yard touchdown that ended the Camels’ 34-31 double-overtime victory in the semifinals against Cheyenne East.
If any team can stifle Gillette’s top-ranked offense, it’s Natrona. The Mustangs have 4A’s top rushing defense (87.5 yards per game), passing defense (108 ypg), total defense (195.5 ypg) and scoring defense (5.1 points per game), and leads the state in turnover margin (plus-23).
This year’s Natrona defense is reminiscent of the one from its 2012 state title team.
That unit led 4A in rushing defense (46.4 ypg), total defense (140 ypg) and scoring defense (6.6 ppg) and was second in passing defense (93.6) and turnover margin (plus-14). It’s worth noting that Rock Springs led the state in passing defense at 92.3 yards per game, so Natrona was close to leading Wyoming in four of the five major defensive categories.
“If you line those defenses up side-by-side, we’re better at linebacker than that group,” Harshman said. “That group was really good, but this group is better. Dan Reese was probably better than any of our current inside guys, but the unit is better on average.
“On the defensive line, we’re as good or better and we have a lot of depth. We’ve also got really solid DBs. That 2012 bunch was a great defense, but this group has really done a nice job.”