When the two most prolific passing attack teams in Class 1A square off, as they did Saturday in Hayden, it's natural to think the team that has the best day throwing the ball stands the best chance to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
Byers out gained Hayden by nearly 400 yards through the air Saturday, but Hayden won the only stat that mattered. The Tigers managed just 66 yards passing, but they got great play on special teams and several key stops on defense to advance to the second round of the playoffs with a 41-21 win.
"It's a playoff win," Hayden Coach Shawn Baumgartner told his players "We'll take one of those any way we can get it."
The way the Tigers got it Saturday was with key plays at critical moments in the game. Among them:
n With the game tied 7-7 in the second quarter, senior Chris Frentress gathered in a Byers punt at his own 40-yard line and raced up the sideline 56 yards before being dragged down at Byers' 4-yard-line, setting up the first of three touchdowns by senior running back Cam Whiteman.
n On Byers' next possession, Frentress picked off a pass and returned it to Byers' 16-yard line, this time setting up Whiteman's 12-yard touchdown run that gave Hayden a 21-7 lead.
n With five seconds left in the half and Byers at Hayden's 6-yard-line, Hayden defensive lineman Seth Copeland broke through and sacked Bulldog quarterback Bobby Adamson for a five-yard loss, ending the half and preserving Hayden's two-touchdown lead.
n After Byers marched 66 yards on nine plays on its first possession of the third quarter to cut Hayden's lead to 21-14, Tiger senior Evan Hilling gathered in the ensuing kickoff at his 13-yard line, cut across the field and raced 87 yards for a touchdown that put Hayden back up by two scores.
n The ensuing kickoff took a sharp bounce over a Byers receiver who fumbled the ball. Hayden recovered, and five plays later, Whiteman's third touchdown run gave the Tigers a 35-14 lead, and for all practical purposes, their first playoff victory since 2001.
"Our special teams were huge for us today," Baumgartner said. "We had a couple of big punt returns and then (Hilling's) kickoff return was really big. It really got us the momentum back."
Hilling said he knew right away that he had room to run.
"As soon as I caught it, I thought we were going to get a pretty good return," Hilling said. "They were drifting right, and I had a pretty good wall of blockers. I cut across to the left, and there it was. That was big. It helped us pull away."
Hilling, who entered the game as the second-best receiver in Class 1A, managed just two catches for 14 yards Saturday. Junior quarterback Keenan Bruchez, who entered the game with 1,800 yards passing and 24 touchdowns, completed just 8 of 20 passes for 66 yards. But the numbers didn't matter to Hilling and Bruchez. "It was frustrating because we couldn't get anything going on offense like we're used to," Hilling said. "But the important thing is getting the win. That's all that matters."
With the passing game largely stymied and nursing a lead, Hayden turned to its ground game. Whiteman managed 115 tough yards on 20 carries, and Bruchez added 87 on quarterback keepers.
Defensively, the Tigers spent the afternoon trying to contain the state's top passing attack in Adamson and his speedy receivers, Dustin Dodge and Jonathan Miller. The trio put up eye-popping numbers. Adamson completed 28 of 54 passes for 420 yards and two touchdowns. Dodge caught five passes for 132 yards and two scores, and Miller caught nine passes for 108 yards and threw a touchdown pass to Dodge.
But despite the gaudy numbers the Tigers gave up, they always found a way to stop the Bulldogs when they really needed to. The Tigers picked off four Adamson passes, sacked him three times and stopped the Bulldogs on fourth down three of four times. Frentress had two interceptions, and Jesse Drennan and Tyson Letlow had one each.
"We had to totally change our defense this week to try to stop their offense, which was hard," Drennan said. "They were really good. They got us to bend, but we didn't break. That's the way our defense has been all year."
The win moved Hayden to 10-0 on the season, and set up a matchup with undefeated Wray, which routed Rocky Ford, 55-6, on Saturday. The game will be played Saturday at Wray, which is 10 miles west of the Nebraska border on U.S. Highway 34, about 350 miles from Hayden.
Wray's 10-0 record includes three wins against Class 2A playoff teams.
Baumgartner doesn't know a lot about Wray yet, but he isn't worried.
"Our focus has been one day at a time, one week at a time and one game at a time," Baumgartner said. "We'll go to work Monday and start preparing. This team will be ready."