Down 17-7 at the half to a tough Lander team, Evanston High School head football coach Jim Burton knew the team waiting for him in the locker room wasn’t about to roll over and quit.
“The kids have a lot of heart and determination,” EHS head coach Jim Burton said about his team. “They want to be successful, they want to do well, and it shows in their ability to fight back, even when the chips are down.”
The Red Devils (1-3) outscored Lander (3-1) 6-3 in the second half, led by a ground-and-pound running attack and a stifling defense that held the Tigers to a field goal in the second half.
But the stellar play exhibited by Evanston in the second half wasn’t enough to overcome the miscues in the first. With less than two minutes left to play and Evanston needing a touchdown to tie the game, Red Devil quarterback Jaxin Moore found a wide open Quinton Elmer for an apparent 36-yard gain. But an illegal man downfield call against Evanston negated the play; the Red Devils were unable to convert on fourth down, giving the ball back to the Tigers, who ran out the clock for the win.
“John Scott [Lander head football coach] always has his team ready to go,” Burton said. “There’s a reason he’s been coaching for as long as he has, and been successful. Those guys are tough, very physical. But I really liked our boys’ ability to fight back.”
The Red Devils struggled out of the gate, especially on offense. Moore threw three interceptions in the first half, including a pick-six by Lander defensive lineman Jeremiah Beasley, who stepped in front of a screen pass and rumbled 42 yards into the end zone for the score.
“You look at it from an offensive standpoint, we tied them,” Burton said. “But we give up that pick-six on that screen, that’s the difference in the game.”
Lander scored on the game’s opening drive, highlighted by a 43-yard run by Jack Sweeney; Sweeney scored on a one-yard plunge a couple of plays later to make it 7-0 with the extra point.
The Red Devils’ first drive stalled, but on Lander’s next possession, Evanston linebacker Jagger Mitchell picked off the Tigers’ Brenon Stauffenberg and returned the ball to the Lander seven-yard line. Mitchell scored three plays later on a one-yard touchdown pass by Moore; Micah Liechty’s extra point brought the game back to even at 7-7.
The Tigers retook the lead on their next possession on a 36-yard field goal by Matisse Weaver, his first of two in the contest, to make it 10-7. Lander added to its lead early in the second quarter, courtesy of Beasley’s pick-six.
“When we get into those third-and-long, fourth-and-long situations, we’re not exactly built to sling it all over the place,” Burton said of the pick. “We have to rely on some tricks and things. Lander’s D tackles are pretty big and pretty tall — it’s hard to throw over them. Jaxin tried to make a play, and it didn’t work out.”
With the score 17-7 and time winding down in the first half, another timely interception by Mitchell gave the Red Devils good field position. But after driving down to the Lander 20, an intentional grounding penalty took Evanston out of field goal range, and the half ended with the Tigers holding a 10-point lead.
“Jaxin is still figuring out the position,” Burton said. “He’ll roll out and have yardage in front of him, but he wants so much to get his receivers involved. I think sometimes he forces it, but again, that’s his learning process. We don’t throw the ball a ton, so when he gets a chance to, he really wants to, even when it might be better to tuck it and run. He’s trying to get his teammates involved, which is admirable. He’ll be fine.”
Lander pushed its lead to 20-7 late in the third quarter, on a 42-yard Weaver field goal. The Red Devils put together a nice drive to start the fourth quarter, and with less than eight minutes left in the contest, Mitchell scored his second touchdown of the night on an eight-yard run. Liechty’s extra point was blocked, and the Tigers led 20-13. Evanston’s final drive came up short, and Lander held on for the win.
Despite the outcome, Burton praised his defense for holding the Tigers to a field goal in the second half.
“Coach [Garth] Wagstaff always has our defense figured out, and as soon as we figured out what Lander was trying to do, we could answer,” Burton said. “It was pretty similar to what we thought they were going to do, but they changed up a few things, which is why I think we struggled early. Once we figured it out, we were good.”
Evanston won the half 6-3, though Burton said he’d like to see the team get rolling on offense a little earlier.
“We’ve been playing well in the second half all season — if we can figure out how to do it for the whole game, we’d probably be OK,” Burton said. “But again, the kids fought hard, and that’s the big thing right now.”
Mitchell was the workhorse for the Red Devils on the ground, rattling off 128 yards on 26 carries and two touchdowns. Proving to be an all-purpose weapon on offense, Moore finished with 53 yards on 12 carries; Payton Vernon had 20 yards on 10 carries.
“Payton Vernon is always the guy when you need a yard or two, he’s going to get it for you,” Burton said. “He’s a pounder and a hitter, and when he has to, he comes in on defense. We’re still trying to work him in slow — he’s had a few injuries over the years, so we try to limit his minutes a little bit. But when he comes in, he brings the pain.”
Moore completed four passes to four different receivers for 38 yards, though he was picked off three times. Elmer caught one pass for 22 yards, Cade Francom had one grab for 13 yards and Peyton Cornia hauled in a pass for seven yards.
Defensively, Mitchell led the Red Devils with 19 points, followed by Moore and Francom with 14 points each. Ryker Case and Stetson Wiedrich also finished in double digits with 11 points and 10.5 points, respectively. Wade Barker finished the game with 9.5 points.
“Stetson Wiedrich really shined — we had him play some tight end and some A back for us, which is not his natural position,” Burton said. “But he filled in and blocked well.”
Aside from the typical bumps and bruises, the Red Devils had one player with a significant injury — senior offensive and defensive lineman Mayson Erickson went down toward the end of the first half, and was unable to return.
“We might not have Mayson Erickson for Green River — he got an arm injury right there at the end of the first half,” Burton said. “From a classroom standpoint, we have a few kids who are under quarantine, so there will be a few kids not playing Friday because of that. They sat next to someone who tested positive for COVID, so they’re out until Sept. 29th. But injuries, we came out OK, except for Mayson, who is a big part of what we do on offense and defense.”
The Red Devils celebrate Homecoming Friday, welcoming Green River to Kay Fackrell Stadium. The Wolves (1-2) will be looking to rebound from a 35-22 loss to Worland in week three.
“We’re going to work on our execution this week,” Burton said. “Really looking at it, Green River runs a similar defense to what Lander does, except for they’re a little more spread out, so it’s an odd front. It’s a blitzing defense. So it’s things we need to do better at up front. We just need to focus a little bit better at what we do best.”
As for all the hoopla associated with Homecoming Week, Burton said the team will take everything in stride.
“Homecoming Week is a little different this year, obviously,” he said. “We’re playing the game in the afternoon, which is new. There’s no dance, but there will be activities going on. But these kids deal with crazy weeks every week now [thanks to the pandemic] — I think they’re going to be OK. Homecoming is not just football — it’s volleyball, it’s cross country, it’s swimming. So hopefully we can support all of these teams the best way we can.”