By Bruce Sayler
Talent and turnovers fit Billings Senior’s win to a tee and spelled too much trouble for Butte High in their Class AA Conference high school football game at Naranche Stadium Friday night.
Undefeated defending state champion Billings Senior topped the Bulldogs 41-22 to chain its 20th consecutive win. The Broncs haven’t lost since 2015. Stats
The Billings Senior charge were led by FCS commits Nolan Askelson and Gabe Sulser, both of them all-around stars.
Sulser scored three touchdowns, ran for 147 yards on 10 carries, caught five passes for 66 yards, returned a punt for 13 yards, intercepted a pass to stop a Butte High drive and made a tackle. The 5-foot-9, 165-pound senior has announced he will join the University of Montana football program next fall.
The 6-2, 210-pound Askelson will play for Montana State, he has declared. Friday night, he showed the Bobcats are getting a good one. Playing quarterback and linebacker, Askelson ran for 84 yards on 13 packs, completed 13 of 23 passes for 158 yards, and led all tacklers with 13 stops, including two sacks. He passed to Sulser for two touchdowns and scored another on a keeper.
“They’re plenty talented,” Butte High head coach Arie Grey said. “No. 2 (Askelson) doesn’t come off the field and keeps them going. And Gabe is pretty special.”
Billings Senior is 7-0 this season and dropped the Bulldogs to 2-5, though Butte High played the Broncs pretty tough despite the tale told by the final score.
The loss of the ball on three fumbles and two pass interceptions complicated the Bulldogs’ effort against a team that didn’t need the help.
“We played hard, but we made too many turnovers,” Grey said. “And, we didn’t take the ball away like we had been doing.”
Pivotal in the path of the game was a 21-16 difference. Butte High had the cut its deficit to the six-point difference third-quarter 37-yard touchdown pass to junior running back Josh Neil from sophomore quarterback Tommy Mellott. Neil latched onto the ball at about the Billings Senior 20-yard line heading toward the East end zone. He juggled it to about the 12 then controlled it the rest of the way, outrunning the Broncs’ secondary. Trevyn Roth kicked the extra point.
“We had cut the lead to 21-16 and were in the game,” Grey said.
The TD play was set up by a blocked field goal attempt — Robin Bagley smothering Justin Miller’s 25-yard attempt. The Bulldogs took over on their own 8-yard line and Bo Mortensen took off on a 60-yard run and into Billings Senior territory.
Mellott and Neil hooked up two plays later.
“But, they’re a good team and good teams respond to 21-16,” Grey said. “They responded. That’s why they’ve won — now — 20 in a row.”
The response was quick, on the Broncs’ next series. Sulser carried for a 10-yard gain to the Billings Senior 34-yard line after the kickoff placed the team at its own 34. An Askelson pass fell incomplete, but then he kept for an 18-yard pickup to the 48. He then passed to Ben LeBeau for advancement to the Butte High 15-yard line. Askelson found Sulser for a 15-yard scoring connection and the Broncs had re-established command of the game.
Sulser’s 15-yard touchdown run with 4 minutes, 5 seconds left in the first quarter began the scoring. Miller booted the first extra point.
The Bulldogs answered on the first play of the second period. Mellott fired to Kaden Hanni crossing through the end zone on a 9-yard play.
The Broncs retaliated with a 55-yard TD drive. Askelson finished it by keeping on a rollout, turning around right end and dashing 25 yards upfield to the end zone. Billings Senior had a 14-6 lead with 10:49 left in the half. The Broncs recovered a Butte High fumble at the Bulldogs’ 37-yard line for a possession that led to an Askelson 23-yard TD pass to Sulser.
Roth booted a 27-yard field goal for Butte High on the last play of the half and the Billings Senior lead was 21-9 at halftime.
The Mellott-Neil TD narrowed the difference before Billings Senior scored two touchdowns in the third quarter. Askelson followed his 15-yard TD pass to Sulser with a handoff to Sulser that went for 68 yards and a touchdown. The Broncs enjoyed a 35-16 lead after three quarters.
Sulser capped the Broncs’ scoring with a 22-yard run before Butte High tallied the last touchdown of the game on a pass to Brady Deck from Mellott that covered eight yards.
“We probably gave them too much respect,” Grey said. “We needed to do our job. They have a lot of speed, but we needed to turn them back inside.”
Grey was pleased with the Bulldogs’ defensive effort, especially since the major share of the game was played on the Butte High side of the 50-yard line.
“The defense played really well,” he said. “But playing on a short field all night was big for (the Broncs). I think I’d be scared to look at the stats and see where they started their drives, their average field position when they got the ball. We gave them too much help on a short field. Too many turnovers.”
Mellott passed for 280 yards, completing 25 of his 41 throws. Mortensen finished with 106 yards on 16 carries, and three Butte High receivers caught six passes apiece — Neil, Kash Kelly and Hanni. Neil’s were worth 136 yards.
Defensive tackle Corbin Walker registered six tackles, five unassisted. Jeff Queer had a tackle for loss among his six tackles. Kale McCarthy intercepted a pass.
Butte High was missing two senior starters from its lineup. Tight end/defensive end/kicker/punter Nate Ferguson is still recovering from a knee injury, and linebacker Marcus Garcia is healing an ankle injury.
Butte High will play at Great Falls High next Friday.
“We did some really good things, tonight,” Grey said. “We’ll continue to learn and get better.”