Jackson’s football season ended in Star Valley on Friday night, in a state semifinal that opened with a sense that the Broncs were on the cusp of accomplishing the improbable.
Despite Star Valley jumping to an early 7-0 lead, a power offense headed by Jackson’s human horse of a running back, Jeydon Cox, scored a touchdown with 3:04 remaining in the first half to have the West’s No. 3 Broncs up on unbeaten Star Valley 14-7.
But the Braves, uncomfortable letting any sort of momentum be carried into the opposing team’s locker room, responded by knotting the game with just a minute to spare in the second quarter. That score set off four unanswered touchdowns bleeding into the second half for the Braves, who went on to win their 20th straight game and advance to the state championship with a 42-21 victory.
Both teams ditched the offensive looks that brought them to the meeting, and both were successful for stretches despite opposite appearances. The Broncs chose to almost exclusively run, with a loaded backfield led by Cox and Brody Hasenack. The Braves went into their well of tricks and deceptions, frequenting reverses, wide receiver passes and sweeps.
“The wife suggested it. I used to run that stuff in Vail [Colorado],” Broncs head coach David Joyce said. “We’ve got two dynamic backs. It was a good suggestion by her; she should probably be the coach. I didn’t do a good job in the second half.”
But where Star Valley head coach McKay Young saw the momentum drain from the Jackson sideline and into his own had nothing to do with play calling. It was a special teams play that was one of only a handful of obvious errors made by the Broncs all night.
Jackson forced a Braves three-and-out to open the second half of play, then suffered a three-and-out itself. Usual punter AJ McCool was severely limited with a leg injury, forcing Cox to step in as punter at midfield. The punt got off, but it was low, nearly skimming the helmets of the linemen in front of him. A Braves defender got a hand on it, and six plays later Star Valley’s Dean Shaw ran it in from 13 yards to give the Braves a lead they never lost.
“That punt block is when the whole thing changed,” Young said. “That punt block gets us the ball at the 50 with momentum. From that point forward the tidal wave was coming.”
The wave crashed on Jackson from all angles, with players from across the Star Valley lineup pushing it forward. Shaw carried much of the load. He ran 14 times for 45 yards and a score, caught three passes for 44 yards and a score, and threw three passes for 52 yards and a score.
Usual running back RJ Cazier carried 10 times for 79 yards and a score, caught three balls for 58 yards and a score, and threw a touchdown himself right before the final horn.
“All those trick plays we’ve been practicing, we wanted to give those a try,” Young said. “We weren’t going to play not to lose, not going to play to not make a mistake. We were going to come out and be aggressive. If we went down it was going to be in a blaze of glory.”
Jackson stuck to its run-heavy offense defiantly as the fourth quarter slipped away, and came up with its third touchdown with 4:27 remaining to cut the Star Valley lead to 35-21. It came on a 15-play drive, 10 of which were runs, almost all by Cox. Cox reached the end zone with Jackson facing a fourth-and-7 from the Braves’ 19. He caught a quick dump pass, lost a shoe, received three hits as punishment and dove across the goal line.
From there Star Valley drove down the field efficiently and used another trick play to sink the dagger in with under 90 seconds to play.
Cox ran just one more time before the final horn to put him unofficially at 52 carries on the evening for 220 yards. He caught three passes as well, and ran back a number of kick returns that set Jackson up with slivers of hope as the second half got away from them.
“He got us here,” Joyce said of Cox’s output. “We were going to give him the opportunity to take us to state.”
The state championship will pit the Braves against the West’s No. 4 seed next week. Powell knocked off its rival Cody 20-13 in the state’s other semifinal.