Bulldogs host CMR in AA grid semis

Butte High head football coach Arie Grey understands a few things about playing football in November, and the thick blanket of snow that covered Naranche Stadium Thursday only drew a smile from the fifth-year coach as he talked of Butte High’s semifinal matchup with the Great Falls Rustlers.

“You know, when these kids were little, this is when they loved to go out and play football. This is nothing to them,” Grey said. “This is how the game should be played – in the cold and snow.”

Brisk – if not downright cold – temperatures are forecast for Friday night’s clash between the Bulldogs and Rustlers, as the opening kickoff is slated to fly at 7 p.m. at Naranche. (KBOW 550 AM. Click here to listen online.)

Third-seed CMR and second-seed Butte come into the semifinal tilt with identical 9-2 records, though the Bulldogs own a head-to-head win over the Rustlers. Butte High rallied for a 40-21 win over CMR in the season opening game for both teams on Aug. 24 at Naranche.

Conditions will certainly be different this time around, and Grey is quick to point out that both teams have come a long way since August.

“They are leaps and bounds ahead of where they were early,” Grey said. “But then so are we. We’re excited for Friday. We’ll come ready to play with tons of passion.”

Tickets are on sale in the Butte High commons from 1-4 p.m., and gates open at 5:30. The other semifinal matchup pits No. 1 Kalispell Glacier against No. 5 Bozeman. The winners of the semis will meet next Friday at the home of the highest remaining seed to determine the 2012 state champions.

Crews have been hard at work removing snow since the first flakes flew early Thursday morning, and the conditions will likely dictate some adjustment in the teams’ approach to Friday’s game. Grey, however, said his squad’s game plan hasn’t changed much.

“We’ll adjust accordingly, but we’re going to play fast and physical football,” Grey said. “We’ve had a plan in place all week and we’re not going to deviate from that. We’ve told the kids not to worry about any of the things we can’t control.”

One thing they will try to control is a potent Rustler offense. That will be a tall order, as CMR centers its attack around standout running back Hunter Thomson, who averages 144 yards per game. Thomson tallied 204 yards in 29 carries against Butte, while Jayse McLean tacked on another 117 yards on the ground.

CMR used McLean extensively at quarterback in August, though Josh Horner has been under center for most of the season. Horner averages 110 yards passing per game, but leads the Rustlers with 22 rushing touchdowns.

“Defensively we’ve got to stop the run,” Grey said, “We have to do a good job on first down and play physical up front. We need to be in our proper run fits.”

Grey said his team’s defense has improved steadily throughout the season.

“We’re still doing a lot of the same stuff we’ve done all along, we’ve just gotten better,” he said. “I thought we did a great job with our run fits last week.”

Butte High avenged an early loss against run-happy Billings Skyview last week in the first round of the playoffs, as the Bulldog defense turned around fortunes from the teams’ first meeting, also in August.

“Bo Taylor played extremely well,” Grey observed. “He’s got a great motor and he created some havoc. I’m proud of what he did, and we’ll expect to see that again.”

Grey also lauded the play of defensive captain Daniel Kloepfel, as well as fellow linemen Billy Robinson and Anthony Moritz.

“We need our defensive line to do a good job reading and getting off the blocks so our linebackers and our defensive backs have a chance to get to the ball,” Grey said. “We’ll see heavy doses of Thomson, and we know Horner runs and throws the ball extremely well. CMR is a very disciplined and well coached team.”

On the offensive side of the ball, Butte will look to keep the fire burning with its powerful attack. Junior quarterback Dallas Cook has played a major role in getting the Bulldogs where they are, but he’s surrounded by a host of big, fast and talented players.

A speedy and tough corps of receivers, including Bryce Armstrong, Dalton Daum, Jon Allen and Tyler Earles, gives Cook a number of options in the pass game, which accounts for around 300 of Butte’s average 500 yards in offense per outing this season.

Running backs Jake Eisenbarth and Zach Bunney join Cook in a hard-headed ground game, and all three have shown the ability to break free in the flat.

Making the whole attack possible is a big, experienced offensive line. Seniors Nick Butorovich, Moritz, Zach Erickson and Drew Schleeman lead the forward push by the Bulldogs.

“Our offensive line is playing extremely well,” Grey said. “Our running backs are hitting the holes, and they’ll be ready to roll.”

Grey said his team’s offense needs to have success in the red zone and take care of the ball in what could be wet and slippery conditions.

“In any game turnovers are huge,” Grey said. “When the weather is like this it puts more emphasis on keeping the ball, but we still need to play fast and physical.”

Special teams and field position will also be important in inclement weather.

“The first time they won field position battle,” Grey conceded. “We’ve got to be sound on punt, and on our return game. CMR has some of the best special teams we’re going to see.”

The Bulldogs again look for a big and vocal home crowd, which has been key in boosting the Butte defense.

“We have the best crowd,” Grey said with a wide smile. “I can’t say enough about them. They’re loud and the kids feed off them. They come in ready to roll, and we have to do the same thing on the field.”

Grey expressed excitement to be playing a team of CMR’s caliber in the playoffs.

“CMR is one of the greatest programs in the state of Montana,” Grey said. “We’re excited to play them.”