The Hayden Tigers found just enough big plays and defense to escape with a 26-20 win Friday over the Meeker Cowboys.
With the win, Hayden moved to 6-0 on the season and gained control of the Western Slope League. The Tigers are 4-0 in league play. Meeker fell to 3-3 overall and 3-1 in the league.
The Tigers needed a fourth-quarter comeback to earn the win. Meeker took its first lead with 9:20 left in the game when running back Justin Jacob scored his third touchdown on a 6-yard run. Luis Villapando's extra point put the Cowboys up 21-20.
But Hayden didn't flinch. Evan Hilling, who caught six passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns, returned the ensuing kickoff 25 yards to set the Tigers up at their own 44 with 7 minutes left in the game. Two plays later, quarterback Keenan Bruchez connected with Hilling for 14 yards to set Hayden up at the Meeker 27-yard line. Three runs later, the Tigers faced a fourth-and-2 at the Meeker 19 with 4:08 to go. Bruchez dropped back and connected with Tyson Letlow, who cut across the middle and took the ball into the end zone.
Bruchez completed only eight of his 24 passes, but he made each one count. Four went for scores of 71, 75, 59 and 19 yards. He finished with 282 yards through the air. He threw one interception.
Hayden managed 99 yards rushing on 29 carries. Cam Whiteman led the way with 47 yards on 14 carries.
"We lived and died with the big play tonight," said Hayden coach Shawn Baumgartner. "The Meeker defense was outstanding. In the past, we've been able to rely on the pass and the run. Nobody has been able to take away both like Meeker did."
The game was a defensive struggle in the first half. The only score came on Bruchez's 71-yard pass to Jesse Drennan with 9 minutes left in the second quarter.
But the teams loosened up in the third period.
Meeker tied the game in the third period after getting a first down at the Hayden 30-yard line after a blocked punt. Six plays later, Justin Jacob scored on a 10-yard run.
On Hayden's next possession, Meeker defensive back Korley Boarchard picked off a Bruchez pass and returned it to the Hayden 30. Suddenly Meeeker had all of the momentum.
But on Meeker's next play, the Cowboys fumbled, and Hayden recovered at its 25. On the first play from scrimmage after the turnover, Bruchez dropped back and lofted a pass that Hilling hauled in near the Meeker 45-yard line and raced untouched into the end zone. Bruchez's kick made it 14-7.
Meeker again tied the game at 14 on Jacob's 5-yard run at the start of the fourth period. Jacob set up that score with a 43-yard punt return.
But again Hayden responded. This time, Bruchez connected with Hilling on a 59-yard pass that made it 20-14.
"The right side corner bit on the inside move every time, so we started going deep," said Hilling after his monster game. He credited the offensive line with giving Bruchez time to throw.
It took the Tigers a quarter to get untracked. Hayden finished the first 12 minutes of play with three possessions, 1 yard of total offense, no first downs and six penalties for 45 yards.
Fortunately, the Tigers defense gave nothing to the Cowboys, who finished with a single first down in the first quarter.
Finally, with 9:54 remaining in the second and Hayden facing a third-and-10 from its 29, Bruchez dropped back and lofted a high spiral for Drennan streaking down the right sideline. Drennan gathered the ball in at midfield and streaked down the sideline for the game's first score.
The touchdown loosened up the Tigers, who moved the ball more freely the rest of the half. The Tigers got down to the Meeker 25 late in the half but couldn't manage any points.
The Tiger defense kept the Cowboys in check through the first 24 minutes. Meeker managed just 45 yards of total offense and two first downs in the first half.
Hayden held Meeker to just 179 yards of total offense for the game.