MISSOULA – Jake Eisenbarth ran for four touchdowns on a snow-covered Missoula County Stadium field Thursday, as the No. 4 Butte High Bulldogs wrapped up their Class AA regular season schedule with a 37-19 win over Missoula Sentinel.
The Bulldogs claimed a share of the regular season lead, improving their ledger to 8-2. Butte High will have to wait, however, to learn its postseason seeding position, as four other teams all try to finish with 8-2 records.
The Bulldogs didn’t play their best game of the season, but did come out on top when they needed to – and in poor playing conditions to boot.
“Missoula Sentinel matched up pretty well with us,” Butte head coach Arie Grey said after the game. “Hats off to them. We hurt ourselves tonight, and they hurt us too. But we did our part, and now we’ll sit back and see how things unfold.”
Butte High benefited from four Sentinel turnovers – two fumbles and two interceptions – while the Spartans turned the ball over on downs once and punted twice. The Bulldogs had their troubles in the miserable conditions as well, giving the ball back on downs four separate times. Butte also fumbled twice, while quarterback Dallas Cook was intercepted once as well.
Cook surpassed Matt Berg’s record for passes completed in a season, collecting 16 successful tosses Thursday, though it was the Bulldog ground game – especially in the first half – that buoyed Butte. Eisenbarth had 28 carries for 179 yards, while senior backfield teammate Zach Bunney carried the ball 17 times for 134 yards.
“We knew we were going to have to lean on our running backs and our offensive line,” Grey said. “They really carried us in the first half, and then we kind of got things going in the second half.”
A light rain cooled and turned to snow during pregame warm-ups, and the field was under a thin blanket of white by the opening kickoff. That didn’t stop the Bulldogs from scoring on their first drive, as Tyler Earles broke free for a 46-7 yard gain on a Cook screen pass. The junior receiver ran right over a pair of defenders on the big play, and was only finally taken down by being bumped out of bounds.
That set up Eisenbarth’s first score, a 2-yard blast up the gut.
Sentinel quickly realized that its 215-pound running back Jaydn Wilson was just what the doctor ordered – or maybe just what the weatherman ordered. Wilson plowed his way to 177 yards on 34 carries and two touchdowns, the first of which capped Sentinel’s initial drive. Wilson ran the ball all but two of Senitnel’s first 16 plays, as the Spartans covered 70 yards in six minutes.
Butte retook the lead in the second quarter when Eisenbarth chugged up the middle 24 yards, straight into the end zone, thanks to a sizable hole courtesy of the Bulldog offensive line. Eisenbarth added a PAT run to give Butte an eight point advantage.
Sentinel belied its poor record, not just hanging with the Bulldogs, but challenging for the lead as well.
The Spartans got into the end zone less than a minute after Butte’s second score, as Jake Messerly returned the ball to his team’s own 48. Butte kicker Jake Dennehy was the last man standing between him and a score, but Dennehy made the play.
Dennehy couldn’t help three plays later, however, as Tres Cunningham lofted a screen pass to Messerly, who scored from 49 yards out. A failed PAT run didn’t materialize, as Andre Vialpando met Wilson on the edge, where the back was trying to sweep around.
Neither team was able to create more points before intermission, and the Bulldogs recorded a 15-13 advantage that held through a scoreless third quarter. The snowfall slowed at half, allowing a better view of the gridiron for fans, players and coaches, though the temperature dropped as the evening wore on.
Butte finally gave itself some breathing room early in the fourth quarter when Cook connected with Daum on a 59-yard pass play. The ball was perfectly placed, and Daum deftly avoided all attempts at tackle. Butte tacked on another score from 4 yards out by Eisenbarth, again set up with a nice pass play between Cook and Earles.
The PAT was slated to be a Dennehy kick, but the wet ball was snapped right through Cook’s hands. Dennehy caught the tipped snap, and without missing a beat, sprinted around the right end for two more points.
Bo Taylor snagged a Cunningham pass on the next possession, though the Bulldogs punted four plays later. Sentinel was again driving when Chase Plum picked off Cunningham again, though he lost the slippery football on the return and the Spartans took the ball back. They scored three plays later, forcing the Bulldogs to pick up at least three more points for the 14-point differential so crucial in a number of playoff seeding scenarios coming up.
With 2:39 left to play, the Bulldogs used up just over two minutes, as Eisenbarth scooted in from 3 yards out. The final margin, 37-19, gave the Bulldogs their biggest allowable margin of victory against the Spartans in the playoff seeding procedure.
On Friday, Great Falls (2-7) plays Great Falls Russell (7-2), while Billings Skyview (5-4) plays Billings West (7-2). Kalispell Glacier (7-2) is also at Missoula Big Sky (4-5) Friday evening. Helena (7-2) and Helena Capital (5-4) clash Saturday at 1 p.m. at Carroll College’s Nelson Stadium.
With the win – and a margin of victory greater than 14 points – the Bulldogs did all they could to improve their postseason fate. Eight of the 14 Class AA teams make the playoffs, with the top four seeds hosting first-round games. Butte High will be the top seed should Glacier and Helena lose, or if Glacier wins by less than six and West or Helena scores at least 14 points more than their opponents.
The rest of the scenarios leave Butte anywhere from second to fourth, as Friday and Saturday’s games will help ease the puzzle pieces into place for the playoffs, which are set to begin in a week.
Butte 7 8 0 22 – 37
Sentinel 7 6 0 6 – 19
Butte – Jake Eisenbarth 2 run (Jake Dennehy kick), 10:35
MS – Jaydn Wilson 6 run (Gabe Pessinger kick), 4:27
Butte – Eisenbarth 24 run (Eisenbarth run), 4:19
MS – Jake Messerly 50 pass from Tres Cunningham (run failed), 3:22
Butte – Dalton Daum 59 pass from Dallas Cook (Dennehy kick), 10:51
Butte – Eisenbarth 4 run (Dennehy run), 6:55
MS – Wilson 12 run (run failed), 2:39
Butte – Eisenbarth 3 run (Dennehy kick) :28
RUSHING – Butte (54-351): Eisenbarth 28-179, Zach Bunney 17-134, Cook 8-43, Daum 1-(-5). Sentinel (47-196): Wilson 34-177, Cunningham 13-19.
PASSING – Butte: Cook 15-29-1–218. Sentinel: Cunningham 14-24-2–194.
RECEIVING – Butte: Bryce Armstrong 5-73, Tyler Earles 2-67, Daum 3-59, Jon Allen 3-16, Bunney 2-3. Sentinel: Messerly 4-80, Austin Violette 4-66, Wilson 4-33, Logan Ganieany 1-8, Ty Martin 1-7.