POCATELLO – When Thunder Ridge had its inaugural season last year, all that meant for Highland was that the Rams had a new league foe they could dominate.
Highland thrashed Thunder Ridge 31-6 on Friday at Holt Arena to remain undefeated all-time against the second-year football program and increase its winning streak to 27 games against 5A District 5-6 opponents.
From the start of their conference opener, the Rams (5-1, 1-0) suffocated the Titans on defense and could do anything they wanted on offense, discluding self-inflicted stumbles.
"The boys came out and executed well. There's a lot of distractions on homecoming week," Highland coach Gino Mariani said. "It's not the easiest focus week, but I thought we had a workman-like game."
PHOTOS: Highland-Thunder Ridge football
The Rams ran 31 plays in the first half, compared to 15 by a Thunder Ridge offense that did not convert a first down in the first two quarters. The Titans were only down three possessions, 17-0, at halftime, but it was all but over.
Highland received the ball first in the game and immediately marched down the field using its run-oriented offense. The Rams made it to Thunder Ridge’s 4-yard line before a fumble on a pitch stalled the drive and they settled for a 24-yard field goal by Ian Hershey.
Defending run after run, the Titans (2-4, 0-1) were susceptible to the play-action pass Highland called, amounting to a 45-yard touchdown from Easton Durham to Josh Potter to put the Rams ahead 10-0 on their second drive.
It was 28 minutes, 26 seconds into the game before Thunder Ridge achieved a first down, on an 18-yard over-the-shoulder catch by Kaysen Isom on a pass from quarterback Tao Johnson.
On that third-quarter drive, Thunder Ridge scored its first touchdown on a 25-yard pass on another Johnson-Isom connection on fourth-and-13 to cut the deficit to 24-6 with 4:10 remaining in the third quarter.
That would be the last touchdown by Thunder Ridge, which is not the first to struggle offensively against the stifling Rams defense. Highland entered Week 6 allowing the second-fewest points per game in 5A at 12.8 and no one has scored more than 23 points against the Rams.
Mariani started his explanation about his defense's success by talking about the front four.
"They're doing a tremendous job," Mariani said. "They put a lot of pressure on any kind of passing game. They're tough in the run game. They get off blocks pretty well. Our linebackers fly around and make plays."
The final margin was closer than Highland’s 51-7 romp over the Titans last year, but that may have to do with Highland’s grind-it-out offensive style rather than Thunder Ridge.
The Rams compiled 265 yards rushing for 6.8 yards per carry and were led by Kaleb Demuzio's 117 yards rushing on 14 carries.
After a Durham interception on Highland’s only scoreless first-half drive, the Rams responded by deploying eight consecutive run plays on their next possession to advance to Thunder Ridge’s 25.
Then, the Rams relented and called two consecutive pass plays, both completions to Cooper Duffin, who caught the first one over the middle for a 19-yard gain before a 6-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown to put Highland ahead 17-0 and put the Titans away.
Highland faces Century on Oct. 11 at Holt Arena.
Before Highland's game, senior Kamiah Olsen was awarded a $500 Jim and Barbara Koetter Scholarship. You can read more about Koetter and the scholarship here.