Fact: Powell and Douglas have boasted two of Wyoming’s most successful high school football teams of the past decade.
Fact: Powell and Douglas have ranked 1-2 in the state since prior to week 2.
Fiction: Anyone has the slightest clue which team will prevail in Friday’s title game.
The foes will meet in Laramie’s War Memorial Stadium at 3 p.m. Friday for the third time in eight years to battle for the state title. And really, it’s the only matchup that made sense.
“It kind of seemed like destiny,” said Powell head coach Jim Stringer. “I would be surprised if the game was not close and very competitive from first whistle to last.”
The Panthers and Bearcats were head and shoulders above the rest of their respective conferences and, on paper, are about as evenly matched as two opposing top seeds can be.
Both teams went 8-0 in the regular season, routinely blew out overmatched opponents, and faced little adversity in the two playoff rounds leading up to Friday’s title game.
Powell won its 10 games by an average of 38.2 points while Douglas won by an average of 36.5. Their schedules shared seven opponents.
The prideful Panther defense ranked as the top in the state, allowing just 155.8 yards per contest, But the Bearcats were a close second at 159.2 yards per game.
Powell had far and away the best run defense, allowing only 74.3 yards per game, 27.6 fewer than the second-rated Bearcats (101.9).
But Douglas’ pass defense, which was tasked with protecting many big leads, surrendered a measly 57.3 yards per game through the air. Powell allowed 81.5 passing yards per game.
Both teams’ defensive fronts penetrate the opponents’ backfield, but to different results. Douglas has a league-high 23 sacks (compared to Powell’s seven) but the Panthers were tops in 3A with 74 tackles for a loss (Douglas was tied for fourth with 42).
Douglas used a 4-3 front when the teams met in the 2011 title game, but has since installed a 3-4 defense.
“They’re putting a lot of pressure on their three down linemen to be able to control the line of scrimmage,” Stringer said.
Sometimes, the defenses made the lives of their offenses real easy. Powell’s defense earned four shutouts and Douglas’ pitched three.
Neither team had trouble moving and scoring the ball.
Each team scored 61 touchdowns on the season and Powell (44.7 points per game) edged Douglas (44 points per game) by the most insignificant of margins.
The Bearcats were tops in the state with 420.6 total yards gained per game and a 8.5 yards per play average. Powell was second in both categories with 399.7 yards per game and 7.4 yards per play.
Douglas’ yardage numbers might be due to having a slightly worse average field position than Powell, as suggested by the fact the Bearcats earned 28 more first downs than Powell (129 to 101) but scored the same number of TDs.
Stringer said field position has given Powell an advantage all season.
“It helps us open the playbook and gives players and coaches more confidence,” he said. “Our defense and special teams have both been instrumental in helping us attain short fields frequently.”
Douglas’ running game wracked up 236.9 yards a contest. This will be the first time Powell’s defense faces a rushing attack that uses a zone blocking scheme.
“It’s going to be something that is completely different than anything we’ve seen so far this year,” Stringer said.
The coach called the Bearcats’ zone scheme “unorthodox” but “effective” and said his team has been making the adjustments necessary to defend the run in practice.
The Panthers will have to zero in on Douglas tailback Logan Barker, who was second in the state with 152.3 rushing yards per game.
Stringer said Barker “runs downhill and runs with a lot of power.”
Powell was just 1.5 yards behind the Bearcats with 235.4 rushing yards per game. Stringer said he hopes the Panthers’ running game can take advantage of Douglas’ 3-4 front.
“I think it definitely opens up some rushing lanes (for) us,” he said.
Powell looks like it may lag a little farther behind in the passing game, where 164.3 yards per game is good for second behind Douglas (183.7).
Drops are not an official stat, so there is no way to compare the squads, but the Panthers suffered from early-season catching issues, which may have caused their numbers to dip a little below what’s truly indicative of their aerial attack.
“I do think our receivers have become more consistent catching the ball,” said Stringer, who attributes the improvement to repetitions between QB Hayden Cragoe and Powell’s deep crop of pass catchers.
Powell will look to showcase the same balanced offense in the title game that it has excelled with all year.
“If we can go about 60-40 and use our run game to set up our passing game, we do a lot of good things on play action,” Stringer said.
The Panthers might not have a 100-yard rusher like Douglas, but is the only team to have two tailbacks in the top-10.
Ty Herd (82.4 ypg) and Cory Heny (71.2 ypg) have proven to be a formidable duo out of the backfield. Heny is behind only Barker with 15 rushing TDs while Herd is tied for fourth with nine.
Stringer has said all season that having two capable backs keeps defenses off-balanced, and opens things up in the passing game, in which players like Kalei Smith, Carter Baxter and Brendon Phister can make big plays.
Smith, whose hands Stringer recently said were “like glue,” is second in 3A with seven touchdown receptions and a 25.9 yards per reception average.
Douglas’ Blake Sanderson and Chance Miller each caught a league-leading eight touchdowns.
Of course, a truly dynamic and successful offense isn’t possible without strong quarterback play.
Douglas’ Austyn Matthews (197 ypg) and Hayden Cragoe (187.9 ypg) rank 1-2 in passing and all purpose yards. Both signal callers protect the ball well and are the only passers in 3A to complete more than 50 percent of their throws.
Is the point hitting home? There is virtually no easily identifiable advantage for one team over the other.
So, if these two squads are as close as the numbers seem to suggest, what might decide the game? Stringer made it clear: Turnovers.
“It’ll probably boil down to who is able to execute the best and limit the number of mistakes,” the coach said.
And, as you might have guessed, the teams are dead even in that category as well, each having committed eight turnovers. Powell lost two fumbles and threw six interceptions, Douglas lost five fumbles and was picked three times.
The Bearcats might credit some good bounces for having lost only five fumbles. Douglas fumbled a total of 12 times but was lucky enough to recover seven of them. The two fumbles the Panthers lost were their only fumbles of the season, suggesting they may take care better care of the ball.
“Hopefully we can make a few of those opportunities work out in our favor because I do have a feeling that the turnover margin in this game will have a decisive impact,” Stringer said.
Powell will look to avoid mistakes on special teams, which have been shakier than Stringer prefers the past few weeks, including last week in which Cody scored on a 98-yard kickoff return.
The coach, in search of his fourth state title, said he believes his team has solved its problem.
“The people that are on there know what they’re doing, know how to fill lanes (and) avoid blocks without giving up big running lanes,” he said.
One mistake by one team could mean one extra possession, one extra score and one more state title for the other.
Powell beat Douglas 37-25 for the state crown in 2006 and then 15-14 in 2011, the latter of which was the third win of the Panthers’ current 24-0 streak.
Douglas reached the championship by defeating Jackson 52-14 in the first round and then beating Star Valley 32-7.
Jackson (2007) is the only other team to have won the 3A title since 2006.
Editor’s note: Yardage, touchdown and turnover stats do not include each team’s semifinal game.