The outcome of a lot of football games comes down to one play.
Less often, it’s an entire season.
In the case of Butte High and Great Falls Russell’s Class AA semifinal playoff game Saturday at Naranche Stadium, the game and the season actually did come down to one play. The last play.
Down by one point in overtime following a touchdown, CMR went for two points on its PAT attempt and Butte High’s defense stood up to the test, stopping Rustler quarterback Josh Horner just short of the goal line.
The 37-36 overtime win propelled Butte High into its first state championship game in 21 years. The Bulldogs will host Bozeman next Friday at Naranche to decide the top of the 2012 heap.
The final defensive stand was thrilling to the chilled crowd, but the Bulldog offense also had a big day Saturday, headlined by quarterback Dallas Cook. The big junior passed for a touchdown and ran for four more – including a 10-yard gem in overtime – to secure the win.
“The defense won this game for us,” Cook said after the game. “They got back those fumbles, and that was the turning point.”
Butte High’s defense had just come up with a third-quarter defensive stand that forced a CMR punt, but an odd hop left the football running to the coffin corner where the Rustlers downed it on the Butte 1 yard line. Great Falls’ defense stopped Jake Eisenbarth in the end zone for a safety on Butte’s first play of the possession, and led 30-14 with 7:53 left in the third.
The next three Rustler drives, however, ended in fumbles and Butte’s offense went to work. Two of the CMR gaffes ended in Cook touchdowns, the second of which tied the game at 30-30 with a minute left on the clock. CMR’s last drive ended up well short of points, and a Montana overtime was called for.
Butte High lost the toss, getting the ball first, but the Bulldogs were able to choose the end of the field that would see the final plays. Butte’s captains chose the west end zone, home of the Butte student section and an overly vocal Bulldog cheering section.
Cook, who led all rushers in the game with 20 carries for 130 yards, didn’t hesitate on the first play of overtime. The 6-foot-4 signal caller took advantage of his big veteran offensive line’s work up front and blasted in from 10 yards out. Jake Dennehy’s third of three extra points put the Bulldogs up by seven, but CMR’s powerful offense still had its opportunity to play.
The Bulldog defense held fast on CMR’s first two efforts, but Rustler quarterback Josh Horner found Hunter Thomson on third-and-goal from the 5, and the big back punched in for the touchdown.
The Rustlers had great success throughout the game with its running attack, and veteran CMR head coach Jack Johnson elected to go for two points and the win on the point-after attempt. Horner, who ran successfully off tackle most of the day, attempted to punch the run up the middle, but it was there he met down lineman Billy Robinson and the rest of the Bulldog defense.
A tense moment passed while the Bozeman officiating crew took a good look at the situation. The Butte crowd and players erupted into celebration when it was indicated that Horner didn’t quite make it to the goal line.
Robinson, whose mother passed away earlier this year, said he wasn’t alone on the play.
“I dedicated this season to my mom,” Robinson said after the game. “I asked my mom for help and she was there for me.”
Emotions poured out after the dramatic win, as the crowd rushed the field to celebrate with the ecstatic players and coaches.
“How ’bout that defense?” Grey asked, as he has following every Butte High win this season. “They settled in and played some football in the second half and they won the game for us. My hat’s off to them.”
Butte linebacker Blake Kraus acknowledged that the Bulldog defense hasn’t been at the top of its game all season.
“But when it comes down to it we know we have to do our jobs,” he said. “We all trusted each other on that last play.”
As they have on more than one occasion this season, Butte High found itself in a hole early on. CMR took the opening kickoff 73 yards to paydirt on a time-chewing drive that featured the one-two running punch of Horner and Thomson. Occasional passes peppered a strong attack that ended in a 5-yard touchdown run from Thomson, though an errant PAT kick left the Rustlers up 6-0.
Butte bounced back from a flubbed kickoff return, as Cook connected with Dalton Daum for a 27-yard gain that set up a 39-yard bomb to a wide-open Bryce Armstrong for Butte’s first touchdown. Dennehy’s PAT gave the ’Dogs a 1-point lead, but the Rustlers stormed back.
After converting the first of multiple third-and long situations, CMR saw Horner score from the 3. The Rustlers took the ball back quickly by recovering a fumble that resulted from a center-quarterback miscommunication, and scored four plays later on a 35-yard keeper from Horner.
Butte got one back with 2:36 left in the half when Cook scored on a 20-yard keeper up the middle, but the Rustlers tacked on another touchdown in the final minute on a Horner keeper from 2 yards out.
Butte faltered again to start the second half, and then saw CMR’s lead increase with the safety. It was then that the Bulldog defense stepped up, getting the ball back in Cook’s hands and the offense produced.
The single-digit temperatures figured heavily in the game. Though the Butte High engineering staff led a Herculian effort to remove tons of show from the playing field and surrounding facilities, Mother Nature kept the cold firmly in place. Butte High’s sideline fell in the shadow of Butte High school, leaving the team in temperatures a good 10 degrees colder than the sunny side of the field.
“I couldn’t feel the football,” Cook said of the conditions in the first half. “But I think we started warming up after the defense got those fumbles.”
“Dallas stepped up,” Grey agreed. “Being the leader he is, he took the team on his shoulders.”
Grey couldn’t end without more praise for his defense.
“They played really well in the second half,” he said. “They started to believe. They’re playing with a ton of confidence, and I’m excited to see that.”
Grey admitted his team has its work cut out with next week’s title game against the Hawks.
“Obviously they’re playing well,” Grey said of Bozeman, which knocked off top-seed Kalispell Glacier Friday night. “Their quarterback is back and they’ve got some great athletes, but to be honest, I haven’t thought too much about them. I’ve been kind of focused on CMR.”
Grey said his team and coaches will, as usual, celebrate the victory for the day, and Sunday start preparing for the next team.
“We’re feeling confident and we’re on top of the world right now,” Cook said. “But that ends at midnight, and we’ll work on our next game.”
Cook, who is having a career season by anyone’s standards, said he and his teammates understand what has to happen to get the Bulldogs to their season goal.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big games.”
For a photo gallery of Blake Hempstead shots from Saturday’s win, click here. All sales proceeds go to the Bruce Sayler Scholarship, which Hempstead is starting this school year.