First-game jitters and early-season gaffes eventually gave way to some pretty good football on Friday night. The Big Sky Eagles even had Missoula County Stadium rocking for a few fleeting minutes before Great Falls finally put them down for the count.
Bison quarterback Andrew Hafliger threw five touchdown passes to propel Great Falls to a 35-24 win, but it took nearly all 48 minutes to get rid of the pesky Eagles.
"I was happy with the way Andrew played," said Bison coach Gregg Dart. "I'm always going to be very critical of him because I always think he can play better."
Dart's hesitance to heap praise on the 6-foot-3 senior had a lot to do with two costly interceptions in the first half, both of which led to touchdowns for the Eagles.
"Really we put ourselves in a hole and I was just happy that we were able to respond as a group," Dart said. "You don't turn the ball over three times and win in the AA very often."
The first of the Bison's three turnovers came just minutes into the first quarter, when Big Sky's Wes Martens snatched a Hafliger pass out of the air at the 16-yard line.
Four plays later, the Eagles struck first blood when quarterback Heath Eustance found Jake Peterson on a 3-yard touchdown pass.
Great Falls roared back to take a 21-14 halftime lead, setting the stage for a second half that saw Big Sky briefly retake the lead.
Eagles fullback Beau Donaldson, who'd been bottled up all night by the Bison defense, finally found some running room in the third quarter.
He broke off a 37-yard touchdown run that put Big Sky up 24-21 with 10 seconds to play in the third quarter, much to the delight of the mostly full bleachers at the stadium shared by all three of Missoula's AA schools.
The Bison responded quickly, though, with Hafliger taking his gains in big chunks. Passing plays of 18, 14, 27 and 11 yards set up a 5-yard strike to Logan Hodke that put Great Falls up for good.
"Great Falls is a really good team," Missoula coach Gary Ekegren said. "I thought we did some really great stuff and I thought we had heart, but at times I thought we doubted ourselves … I think at times we need to believe a little bit more in what we're doing."
Great Falls, ranked No. 4 in Class AA in the preseason poll, stopped the Eagles' final effort 20 yards from the goal line when a fourth-down pass from Eustance sailed wide of his intended receiver with 5:30 to play.
"They didn't wear us out," said Ekegren, who had many of his kids playing both ways. "They just beat us."
Great Falls 14 7 0 14 - 35
Big Sky 7 7 10 0 - 24
BS - Jake Peterson 3 yard pass from Heath Eustance (Eustance kick).
GF - Brennan Freeman 9 yard pass from Andrew Hafliger (kick good).
GF - Aaron Booth 18 yard pass from Hafliger (kick good).
BS - Beau Donaldson 2 yard run (Eustance kick).
GF - Jeremy Strong 5 yard pass from Hafliger (kick good)
BS - Eustance 38 yard field goal.
BS - Donaldson 37 yard run (Eustance kick)
GF - Logan Hodke 5 yard pass from Hafliger (kick good)
GF - Freeman 20 yard pass from Hafliger (kick good)
Rushing - Great Falls (24-144): Strong 18-100, Hafliger 5-30, Booth 1-14. Big Sky (28-145): Donaldson 24-117, Andy Freeman 4-28.
Passing - Great Falls, Hafliger 20-37-5-241. Big Sky, Eustance 20-32-187.