A few weeks ago, I came home late from work and turned on ESPN’s “College Football Final.” They were going into a Colorado highlight when host Rece Davis said something along the lines of, “There are no two teams in the country who are more improved but have less to show for it than Colorado and Arkansas.”
Clearly this was before Arkansas beat LSU and Ole Miss in consecutive weeks.
You might be thinking to yourself, what does this have to do with the 2014 Cheyenne South football team?
Well, that’s an apt description for the Bison, is it not?
There was no team in Class 4A more improved but with less to show for it in the standings.
South finished its fourth season of varsity football 2-7, a school record for wins. It scored its first win over a cross-town rival and its first road win (31-28 at Cheyenne Central on Sept. 5).
It also would have reached the playoffs for the first time had it beaten Rock Springs on Oct. 17. Instead, the Tigers batted away a pass in the end zone as time expired.
“We’ve improved by leaps and bounds in the past three years,” fourth-year South coach Tracy Pugh said. “Two years ago, we played six games where the other team outscored us so much that we had a running clock. This year, we had five games that came down to the last 90 seconds.
“We came out on top in two of those games and two of the other three came down to the last play of the game.”
The other game that came down to the wire was the season-opener in which South had fourth-and-goal from Evanston’s 6-yard line. The Bison got to the 3, but couldn’t cash in as Red Devils’ senior Alek Johnson batted a pass away on the goal line.
The other game South thought got away from it was a 34-25 loss at Casper Kelly Walsh on Sept. 19. The Trojans jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead before South rallied to close the gap to 21-19. Kelly Walsh senior quarterback Marcus Nolan kept the game out of reach with fourth-quarter touchdown runs of 72 and 28 yards.
“I can’t say enough about the kids and the job they’ve done with buying into what we’re trying to do,” Pugh said. “They’re still doing things the right way and we’re still telling them that if they continue to do things the right way that the wins and losses will take of themselves.”
For the most part, players, parents and fans have remained patient and this year’s successes and near-misses showed them what Pugh, his staff and players have known all along — the Bison are headed in the right direction.
“Everybody sees how close we are,” Pugh said. “It’s not just the kids on this team, it’s about the parents and coaches, right down to our students and administration. They see that we’re right there in the hunt.
“We live in a microwave society where everyone wants everything immediately and building a football program takes time. At the same time, I still believe that you are what your record says you are. That makes us a 2-7 team with a lot of work to do to get better.”
WHAT WORKED WELL?
The Bison had four players named to the All-East Conference team: Senior tight end Shane Dilsaver and juniors Marquez Jefferson (running back), Isaac McHenry (at-large defense) and Nick Seui (offensive line).
That’s the most kids that South has had earn postseason recognition.
It’s safe to say that junior quarterback Austin Barker would have earned all-league honors if state champion Casper Natrona County and state runner-up Gillette hadn’t been arbitrarily placed into the East Conference by the Wyoming Coaches Association. (I say arbitrarily because Class 4A doesn’t have genuine conferences. All-conference awards are handed out by the WCA, which has had different league makeups the past two years.)
Barker threw for 1,773 yards and 12 touchdowns. His average of 197.7 yards per game was tops in 4A. The 384 yards Barker threw for in the win over Central was the best single-game total in 4A.
The left-hander and first-year offensive coordinator Fred Pillivant clicked and had the Bison putting up their best offensive numbers using a balanced attack.
“It may have been surprising for teams to see us throw as much as we did,” Pugh said. “I don’t mind throwing the ball, I just don’t like dropping it. We did a good job of throwing it and catching it and our passing game helped win us two ball games and put us in position to win three more.”
The Bison’s passing game could be even more potent in 2015. Not only do they have Barker returning to the lineup, they also bring back receivers Michael DeBruyn (20 catches, 493 yards, 3 touchdowns), Brendyn Nelson (11-263-2) and Riley Haberkorn (16-263-2). DeBruyn and Nelson are big-play threats, having averaged 24.7 and 23.9 yards per catch, respectively.
South was a two-dimensional offense this season, though.
Jefferson rushed for 887 yards and 10 touchdowns on 215 carries. His average of 98.6 yards per game ranked fourth in the state.
“Because we ran the ball so much the previous three seasons and we continued to run the ball well this fall, we were able to be really effective with the play-action pass,” Pugh said.
Even though South has given up less yards and less points defensively in other years, Pugh also thought that unit was improved this season.
WHAT NEEDED WORK?
Penalties and turnovers.
The Bison were flagged for a 4A-worst 83 penalties for 672 yards. That’s an average of 9.2 penalties and 74.667 yards per game.
They also had a 4A-worst minus-10 turnover margin.
“We’re going to spend a lot of time talking about discipline,” Pugh said. “We’re going to sit the kids down this winter and talk to them about commitment and discipline and what we need to do to be a better football team. Then I’m going to leave them alone until after wrestling and basketball are over.
“I want to plant that seed right now. I want them to know that leading the state in turnovers and leading the state in penalties can’t happen again.”
Pugh said there are penalties he can tolerate. For instance, the offensive lineman who blatantly holds a defender to keep him from blasting the quarterback.
Most penalties, though, are intolerable.
“We can’t have the 15-yarders, we can’t have defenders jumping offsides, or linemen committing false starts because they can’t remember the snap count,” Pugh said. “Those are mental mistakes. I also consider fumbles and missed tackles mental mistakes. Those are things we have to clean up.”
The Bison are graduating several key seniors, but they still have plenty coming back. First and foremost is the all-conference trio of Jefferson, McHenry and Seui.
McHenry joined junior Aaron Smith as most improved honorees at the team banquet.
Sophomore Keyshawn Farmer rushed for 54 yards on 17 carries, but his role as a ball-carrier decreased as the season went along. Instead, the Bison used him as a blocking back on ISO plays and out of the power I formation.
“(Farmer) is a very good complement (to Jefferson) and he ended up being a little more physical than I gave him credit for,” Pugh said.
Farmer could find himself taking on a bigger role as a ball-carrier next fall. Combine him with Barker, Jefferson, DeBruyn, Haberkorn and Nelson and the Bison will have several weapons.
“Coach Pillivant and I have already met and we’ve talked about how we really have some kids who can handle the football,” Pugh said. “The problem is that we only have one football. And we have to find a way to get that ball to kids in space and on the edge and let them do what they can do with it.
“It’s not a bad problem to have.”
Nearly 95 percent of South’s football players were playing a winter sport or already hitting the weight room heavily, which Pugh said was nothing but good.
“The things I’ve talked to the coaches and the kids about are extremely fixable,” Pugh said. “We know that two wins aren’t enough and that we have to change some things.
“I can do a better job coaching and the kids can be more disciplined. If we all get on the same page, we’ll be successful.”
Pugh compared building a football program to building a house. South’s Classes of 2012 and 2013 laid the foundation, while the Classes of 2014 and 2015 framed the house.
“Next year, we have to put the walls up, then we’ll put the roof on,” Pugh said. “Eventually, we’ll have to start protecting it.”