By Bill Foley
Maybe it was because the 2019 Butte High Bulldogs have spoiled their fans.
Or maybe it was because every break seemed to be going the way of Kalispell Glacier.
Whatever the reason, a 7-0 Butte High deficit to the Wolfpack seemed more like 35-0 to a nervous crowd of more then 5,000 at Naranche Stadium Friday night.
The Bulldogs trailed by one touchdown at the end of the first quarter of the Class AA quarterfinal football playoff game. It was just the second time the Bulldogs found themselves playing from behind this season.
It was the first time Butte High trailed on its home turf.
Then, almost as if flipping a switch, the Bulldogs were the team their fans had gotten used to once again.
Butte High scored three quick second quarter touchdowns to take control, and the Bulldogs put the game away with a fourth quarter explosion on their way to beating the Wolfpack 51-14. (Stats)
The 10-0 Bulldogs will play host to defending state champion Billings West in next week’s semifinals.
Butte High senior receiver/linebacker Quinn Sullivan said the Bulldogs did not panic when things were not going their way early on.
“We were just trying to control the stuff we can control and stick to what we’re taught every single day,” Sullivan said. “We were playing out there for each other because you never know when it’s going to end.”
That end seemed like it could be Friday when Glacier’s Jonah Pate caught a tipped J.T. Allen pass for an 8-yard touchdown late in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead. The pass was intended for Drew Deck, tipped up by Bulldog junior Billy Kelly and into the waiting arms of Pate.
That came after the Wolfpack converted a fourth and 14 on a dropped snap of a punt. Punter Ethan Diede ran for 17 yards, and a penalty added 15 more.
Pate then forced a Butte fumble, which was recovered by Aidan Smith at the Glacier 46-yard line on the last play of the second half.
Butte High regrouped at the quarter change, and Kelly, broke up a pass on third and six, forcing the Wolfpack to punt.
Six plays later, the Bulldogs were in the end zone. One play after senior quarterback Tommy Mellott hit classmate Tucker Winston down the sideline for a 32-yard gain with a perfect pass, senior Kameron Moreno busted in a 5-yard run.
While the panic was definitely eased with the score, the unrest at Naranche did not subside because Henry Nuce blocked Casey Kautzman’s point after, preserving a 7-6 Glacier lead.
“We knew once we settled in we would be all right,” Butte High head coach Arie Grey said. “But, man, it took us a lot longer than we really wanted to.
“Hats off to Glacier for coming out with a good game plan, doing some different things,” Grey said. “But kudos to us for settling in and playing good football in all three phases of the game.”
On their second possession of the second half, the Bulldogs started to take off.
An off-target throw by Allen — thanks to pressure form senior Cory West — fell into the arms of Mellott, who only plays defensive back in certain situations. Mellott returned the pick 16 yards to the Glacier 44.
Seven plays later, the Bulldogs had the lead for good. One play after Mellott hit Jacob Olson for a 19-yard gain on third and nine, Moreno scored his second touchdown of the night — and 18th of the season — on a 3-yard run.
Kautzman’s kick was true for a 13-7 lead.
Butte High made it 20-7 on the next possession following three and out thanks to a sack by seniors Wyatt Samples, Kameron Moreno and Myles McClernan.
Mellott capped the eight-play, 43-yard drive that followed with a 9-yard run 1 minute, 53 seconds before halftime.
“They settled in,” Grey said of his Bulldogs. “We had a stretch there in the second quarter when you could kind of feel it clicking — big stops on defense, the offense was moving the ball and the special teams was playing well.”
Of course, it is easy for a team to feel confident it will overcome a slow start when it has Mellott, who ran for 203 yards and three touchdowns.
That brings Mellott’s season rushing total to 1,036 yards. He became the first Bulldog quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season while passing Zach Bunney (1,008 yards in 2012) for No. 7 on Butte High’s single-season list.
Kameron Moreno, who ran for 71 yards to run his season total to 1,125, is No. 6.
“He did some really special things for us tonight. He was awesome,” Grey said of Mellott, who also passed 1991 state champion quarterback Josh Paffhausen with his 25th touchdown pass of the season. “He’s just a competitor. We put the ball in his hands and he did some nice things for us tonight. Then other guys made some big plays and stepped up.”
Sullivan said the Bulldogs always have confidence thanks to their quarterback.
“He’s such a great leader,” Sullivan said. “Everyone looks up to him on the team, freshman through seniors. He really knows how to set the tone for everyone and always be positive. It shows out there on the field.
“It helps the entire team out because we know we have someone like him throwing it to us. He boosts everyone’s confidence.”
Mellott’s second touchdown capped a 10-play, 60-yard drive to open the third quarter. It came on a 1-yard plunge for a 27-7 lead.
Glacier pulled within 27-14 when Allen hit a wide-open Diede for a 27-yard touchdown with 55 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Wolfpack attempted an onside kick, which was recovered by Butte senior Mayce Grant.
Once the clock turned to the fourth quarter the Bulldogs really took off.
Mellott found Neil for a 13-yard for a 34-14 lead with 9:06 left in the game.
On the next play from scrimmage Kelly jumped a rout, intercepted the ball and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown. It was about as fast a pick 6 you will ever see.
“I just looked over and I heard the crowd roaring,” Sullivan said. “It was just a great feeling.”
Mellott sprinted 44 yards on fourth and 1 to make it 48-14, and Kautzman booted a 38-yard field goal to make it 51-14.
The field goal came after junior Aidan Pezdark recovered a fumble forced by Dylan Averyt on the kickoff following Mellott’s third touchdown.
Mellott completed 10 of 16 for 123 yards. He hit seven different receivers. Senior Peyton Hettick caught three passes, Neill grabbed two, while Sullivan and Senior Josh Neilson joined Winston, Sullivan and West with one.
As a team, the Bulldogs ran for 285 yards behind a dominating line made up of seniors Konor McClafferty and Lucas Kingston and juniors D.J. Jackson, Ty Raiha and Timothy Hollingsworth.
Kobe Moreno and Nelson joined Mellott and Kameron Moreno with carries.
Junior Aidan Lee joined Sullivan with eight total tackles for the team lead. Averyt and senior Scout Allen each had six, while junior Tanner Huff and Kelley had five. Kingston, McClafferty and junior Tucker LeProwse were credited with three tackles.
LeProwse also recovered a fumble forced by Lee.
“Defensively, we played extremely well,” Grey said. “The leadership by our seniors on defense was awesome.”
Butte High beat Glacier 55-28 when the teams met Sept. 20 in Great Falls.
“The whole group, I’m so proud of what they did,” Grey added of his defense. “That’s a good offense. To hold them to 14 points, that’s a big night.”
In other quarterfinal games, West beat Helena Capital 48-27, Missoula Sentinel toped Billings Senior 24-14, and Bozeman beat Helena 17-7.
Butte High and West last played in the first round of the 2018 playoffs.