UPDATED: Butte High didn’t put together its best game Friday night, but the Bulldogs took advantage of enough offensive opportunities and played tough enough defense to hold on for a 26-20 victory over Billings Senior at Naranche Stadium.
The Class AA tilt was the first for both teams this season, and showed off a couple of Butte High’s strengths, as well as a few weaknesses.
Butte High, which stuttered offensively, was never able to put the game out of reach, and it took big defensive plays from Chase Plum and Kieffer Hepola to help seal the victory for the defending state champs. Hepola scored a touchdown-saving tackle in the waning minutes of the game, while Plum registered a tackle for loss of Senior bruiser Wade Cicierski on fourth-and-one, which turned out to be the Broncs’ final offensive touch of the game.
Butte High’s defense kept Cicierski in check for the most part, holding the back to 122 yards on 28 carries.
“We worked all week in practice on tackling low,” noted Butte lineman Johnny Walker. “We knew we had to get in low and get 11 hats on him. It was just like using wrestling moves.”
The Bulldog offense started out looking particularly sharp, taking the opening kickoff 84 yards on six plays for the opening-drive touchdown – a 19-yard “sneak” by quarterback Dallas Cook. A big 23-yard jaunt by Jake Eisenbarth and a 34-yard pass from Cook to Peter Granger helped set up the first touchdown.
The Bulldogs then tried the first of two unsuccessful onside kicks, though the Butte defense held the Broncs to just six yards on its first four plays. A nice pooch punt, however, pinned the ‘Dogs against their own goal line, and they likewise punted from their own 8.
A short 41-yard field was covered in five plays by Senior, the final a 24-yard TD pass from Joe Zimmer to Levi Beck, though the PAT run failed.
Butte High’s next three drives ended on downs, though the Bulldog defense likewise forced a pair of punts and turned in a picked-off pass by Connor Lane to keep the Broncs in check.
It was late in the first half before the Bulldogs punched the ball in again, this time on a 5-yard blast by converted defensive lineman Connor Lee. Butte’s PAT kick sailed wide right, as did Senior after the Broncs scored following a failed onside kick. Cicierski scored from 10 yards out, leaving Butte up 13-12 at intermission.
The Broncs opened the second half with a failed field goal at the end of a lenghthy drive, while Butte High scored shortly thereafter on a 5-yard pass from Cook to Granger, which made the end zone thanks to a good second effort by the big receiver. The scoring play was made possible by a 69-yard bomb from Cook to Dalton Daum, who was kept from scoring by the slightest of shoestring tackles.
Minutes later, a bad snap to Daum, who was set to punt deep in Bulldog territory, led to a two-play 5-yard drive that was punctuated by a 2-point PAT pass from Zimmer to Beck, leaving the game tied at 20-all with 41 seconds left in the third quarter.
Butte went ahead for good early in the fourth when Eisenbarth found a seam around the right side of Butte’s line and broke free with blazing speed for a 63-yard TD gallop. Butte’s defense forced a punt and two turnovers on downs to extinguish Senior’s thoughts of a comeback.
Butte High improved to 12-1 at Naranche since the facility opened two years ago, and though Bulldog coach Arie Grey was happy with the outcome, he had words about the path to victory.
“There’s a lot we’ve got to shore up on all three phases,” the sixth-year head coach noted. “We had too many missed opportunities. We just need to get back to work.”
Butte plays at Helena Capital next Friday. The Bruins were 65-0 victors over Missoula Hellgate Friday night.
“We need to get back to practice and the weight room,” Grey said of his team. “We had some tired guys tonight. It’s time to get back to work.”
“I need to get in way better shape,” the two-way lineman said. “I’ve played both ways in JV games, but it’s nothing like what we did tonight.”