On a perfect homecoming night at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, it wasn’t the final mistake that broke the hearts of the Missoula Hellgate Knights, but the thing they did right.
A last-gasp pass batted by Hellgate’s Bridger Skillicorn ended up back in the hands of Billings Senior quarterback Joe Zimmer, and he ran in from 6 yards out to give the Broncs a 16-14 win Friday.
It was a stunning loss for the Knights, who came in with an 0-4 record and no points scored in 2013. They rallied from a 10-0 deficit with two quick second-quarter touchdowns – Andy Nemec threw for one and ran for another – and seemed ready to claim their first win.
It slipped away in the final 29 seconds, during which Zimmer completed six straight passes covering 75 yards.
Two things set up Zimmer’s TD: A 48-yard bomb that Connor Gaughan pulled down at the 6-yard line with 1 second left in regulation; and a timeout called by Hellgate as Senior sent a shotgun snap over Zimmer’s head.
It was the third bad snap of the game for Senior, which lost the ball on such a play with 2:26 left, at the Hellgate 30-yard line. But this one didn’t count.
Then came the final circus play, in which Hellgate put on a strong rush and batted the pass. It went straight back to Zimmer, who went around the right side. The entire Broncs team ended up in the end zone with its QB, who ran for 62 yards and threw for 190.
That drew an unsportsmanlike conduct flag, but the damage had been done.
“First of all, hats off to Senior for getting it done,” said Hellgate coach RL Boyles. “They played hard, we played hard.
“I thought our kids deserved to win, and I feel like I should take the blame – it was my fault we lost the game, absolutely. No doubt about it, our kids deserved to win.”
Senior took a 3-0 lead on a Nick Preston field goal at the end of a 17-play, 56-yard drive in the first quarter. Then the Broncs pooch kicked and recovered, keeping the ball away from the Knights’ offense for another five plays.
A 16-yard end around by Damien White capped the 34-yard drive, and Senior (3-2) led 10-0 early in the second quarter.
But the Knights regrouped, first with a 25-yard scoring strike from Nemec to Zac Martin, and then an 11-yard run from their senior QB. On that play, Nemec stiff-armed Senior’s Beau Thomas and went around the left side.
John Dalpiaz helped set up both TDs, tearing off a 25-yard run on the first, 64-yard scoring drive, and then taking a dump-off pass 16 yards on the second.
Dalpiaz ran for 86 yards on 16 carries. Nemec threw for 63, including a 30-yard catch and rumble by Dain Cowan on the second scoring drive.
Hellgate managed just six first downs the second half, two of them via penalty, and also lost a fumble early in the third quarter. For all that, victory seemed not only possible but likely.
“I thought our offensive line executed well and our running backs ran hard,” said Boyles. “We’ll be back harder and stronger next week. Our kids absolutely believe that.”
Senior 3 7 0 6 – 16
Hellgate 0 14 0 0 – 14
Senior – Nick Preston 31 FG :50-1Q
Senior – Damien White 16 run (Preston kick), 11:13-2Q
Hellgate – Zac Martin 25 pass from Andy Nemec (John Dalpiaz kick), 6:47-2Q
Hellgate – Nemec 11 run (Dalpiaz kick), 3:17-2Q
Senior – Joe Zimmer 10 pass from Zimmer (no PAT), 0:00-4Q
RUSHING – Senior (36-100): Zimmer 12-62, Wade Cicierski 19-41, White 2-20, Brennan Nielsen 1-5, Kaelen Shay 1-1, Team 2-minus 27. Hellgate (37-87): Dalpiaz 16-86, Hunter Mahlum 1-7, Dain Cowan 4-1, Team 1-minus 2, Nemec 15-minus 5.
PASSING – Senior: Zimmer 21-31-0 for 190 yards. Hellgate: Nemec 5-9-0 for 63 yards; Brayden Frohlich 1-1-0 for 11 yards.
RECEIVING – Senior: Cody Connolly 11-97, Connor Gaughan 3-52, Levi Beck 3-14, White 1-16, Zimmer 1-10, Scottie Crigler 1-3, Tim Nava 1-minus 2. Hellgate – Colton Halley 2-5, Martin 1-25, Bob Schenk 1-17, Dalpiaz 1-16, Mahlum 1-11.