A week ago, the undefeated Helena High Bengals lost that shiny adjective while facing Great Falls Russell on the road. The Bengals took their first loss of the season, 20-17, to fall a game off the pace for the best record in Class AA football.
It’s not a good week to face Helena High, said Missoula Sentinel head coach Dane Oliver, whose team draws the short straw Friday. The Bengals will be looking to prove a point.
“We faced the same scenario last time we made the playoffs four years ago,” Oliver said, referring to the 2009 season when a playoff-bound Spartans team hosted Helena High coming off its second loss, only to be blown out at home.
“I know (Helena coach) Tony (Arntson) is going to get those guys ready to go,” he continued. “They’re a proud program and we’re going to get their best shot.”
A second straight loss for the Bengals this year would mean a win for Sentinel, a team in need of a few of those while trying to improve its playoff standing. At 4-3 the Spartans are in a three-way tie for sixth place, but the red-hot Rustlers are only a game back after winning their last three following a nasty 0-4 start.
Only the top eight teams make the state playoffs.
The postseason is all but out of the question for Missoula’s other two Class AA schools. Big Sky (1-6) is hanging on by a shred of mathematical possibility while Hellgate (0-7) has already been eliminated.
The Knights are in town Friday for a 7 p.m. kickoff with Kalispell Flathead at Missoula County Stadium while the Eagles are out on the road at Great Falls High. Their game is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
Missoula Sentinel at Helena High, 7 p.m.
Not only will Sentinel face a tough situation in a spurned Helena team this week, they’ll have to defend a quarterback who’s truly settled into his new role behind the center.
Troy Arntson, the coach’s son, switched positions in the offseason to fill the team’s most pressing need. A wide receiver by trade, he’s played quarterback as a senior – and has only gotten better as this year has progressed.
Two of his five interceptions came Week 1 against Big Sky, but the QB has locked in since then. He’s completing 66 percent of his passes this year with 14 touchdowns and 1,300 yards through the air, along with another 400 on the ground.
“He was first team all-state at wide receiver,” Oliver said. “He’s elusive. We’ve got to keep him in the pocket.”
Arntson has improved since opening day, but so too have the Spartans. Sentinel scored 41 points last week in a loss to Kalispell Glacier and the Wolfpack’s prolific offense. That game was a culmination of a season’s worth of work on offense, Oliver said.
Now they just need the defensive side of things and the special teams to rise up. Special teams issues gave the Pack a short field to help it score 59 points against Sentinel. That can’t happen against a good team with expectations to win, Oliver said.
Sentinel ranks 11th of 14 AA teams in average yards against per game at 392. The Spartans are also allowing better than 31 points per game.
Kalispell Flathead at Missoula Hellgate, 7 p.m.
Hellgate was blown out a week ago in a battle of winless teams when it squared up with Big Sky in Missoula. Week 8’s clash with Flathead back at Missoula County Stadium is the Knights’ last best chance to break into the win column before ending the season with difficult games against Bozeman and Sentinel.
“I see it as a good opportunity for us to get in the win column,” coach R.L. Boyles said. “... I think we match up well. I think they would say the same thing. I think it’s going to be a good matchup both ways.”
The Braves (2-5) have earned their only two wins over other Class AA bottom-dwellers Big Sky and Great Falls High. In fact, outside of those two games Flathead hasn’t been within 30 points at the end of any game this season.
And the Knights are showing signs of life after starting the year on the wrong end of four straight shutouts. Hellgate has scored three touchdowns over the last three games.
Neither team is adept at hanging onto the ball. Flathead has 11 giveaways this year and Hellgate ranks second from the bottom in the league with 17 turnovers. The winner of this game could be the team that stays away from hurting itself and giving up the short field.
With two teams that struggle to move the ball – Flathead averages 213 yards per game, Hellgate 123 – field position will be the quickest way to reach the scoreboard Friday.
Missoula Big Sky at Great Falls High, 7:30 p.m.
Like Hellgate, Big Sky will want to seize the opportunity of playing a down-and-out club this week before finding a behemoth on its doorstop next week.
Great Falls High (1-6) hasn’t won since Week 2 over Hellgate. Butte High (5-2) comes to town next week with playoff seeding on its mind.
And unlike in weeks past, the Eagles are finally starting to get healthy. Both in action last week were tight end Colin Bingham and running back Cory Diaz, a duo that’s missed lots of time this year because of injuries. Both boys played heavily into a well-oiled Big Sky offense in the Hellgate game – a good sign for the season’s final stretch.
“Just having those two back and in full swing, it adds that much more to our depth and our strength,” Johnson said. “The last game showed the kind of team we thought we’d be this season.”
That’s apparently the kind of team that can roll out 55 points – by far a season high. The eight touchdowns did come against a beleaguered opponent in Hellgate, but 55 points is still 55 points. Big Sky hasn’t hit that mark since 58 points in about 2006.
“It was big; it was some paydirt,” Johnson said. “I think it will give us some confidence in what we do.”
On the other side of this week’s matchup, Great Falls has one major weapon on offense and that’s senior running back Brad Humphreys. The back has the fourth most rushing yards in the state with 644. He has four 100-yard performances in his six games played.
Unfortunately, few of his 136 carries have ended in the end zone. Humphreys has only three rushing scores all year, but each have come in his last two games.
He can thank Great Falls’ meager offense for that. The Bison average fewer than two touchdowns per game and have only one game over 30 points scored.
• Also in action Friday are Class B’s No. 1-ranked Loyola Sacred Heart Rams. Loyola (5-0) will be at Rollin Field in Missoula to face District 6-B foe Florence (1-5) for a 7 p.m. kickoff on senior night.