MISSOULA — It’s No. 1 vs. No. 2. It's the top team from the West facing the top team from the East. It’s undefeated against undefeated. It’s the game everyone wanted to see.
It’s Missoula Sentinel and Billings West squaring off in the State AA championship game at 7 p.m. Friday at Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium in Billings.
They're the final teams standing in the most unusual of high school fall sports seasons in recent memory because of the pandemic. And they've both earned their way here with 9-0 records, some wins easier than others.
Sentinel, led by coach Dane Oliver, and West, guided by coach Rob Stanton, will be tested more than any other game this season as these teams match up well with their size, strength and speed. That should make it the hardest-fought win for whoever comes out on top, truly earning the title of 2020 state champion.
Here are 10 things to watch in the state championship game:
How much home-field advantage will there be?
Sentinel, which is traveling because the Eastern AA won a coin flip, won’t be playing in front of a huge road crowd because the pandemic has limited fans. Billings Public Schools is allowing two spectators per participant. The Spartans began their trip on Thursday, so they won’t have to play right after a five-hour drive the same day. In two true road games, Sentinel has outscored teams 96-7.
Will the game be an offensive shootout or defensive struggle?
Sentinel has been on fire since scoring 59 points in the opener, averaging 47.6 across nine games and scoring at least 35 points each game. West’s offense is no joke, averaging 46.1 and scoring 41 or more in seven of nine games. Defensively, Sentinel has surrendered six points per game and no more than 19. West gave up a max of 27, but its 10.9 points allowed per game is still impressive.
Is Sentinel capable of winning a tight game?
Sentinel has trailed only 8:21 in 432 minutes (1.9% of the time), all coming in the quarterfinals. The Spartans haven’t trailed or been tied in the second quarter or later and are beating teams by an average of 41.6 points. West has an also-impressive point differential of 35.2 points but has had to pull out wins of four and seven points, the latter coming last week in the semifinals.
Will special teams flip the game?
For all Sentinel’s impressive feats, one thing the Spartans haven’t done is score a special teams touchdown. However, they’ve flipped the field to create short fields, keyed by Jace Klucewich. West, on the other hand, has returned two kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns. Taco Dowler brought back a 96-yard kickoff score in the second half of the semifinals, the difference in a 24-17 win.
Can West solve Sentinel’s dual-QB system?
Sentinel’s dual-quarterback system of Dayton Bay and Camden Sirmon poses challenges galore in preparation. Bay, last year’s starter, is more of a passer, completing 76.7% of his passes for 848 yards, 13 TDs, two INTs. The 6-1 Sirmon, a transfer from Washington, is the team’s leading rusher with 795 yards and 11 scores but can throw the ball, tallying 839 yards, 11 TDs, one INT.
Will West’s 3-4 defense cause Sentinel problems?
Sentinel will face a unique challenge in West’s defense, the first 3-4 scheme that the Spartans will see. The Golden Bears’ front seven features two future Montana State players in 6-3, 200-pound linebacker Neil Daily, a former Spartan, and 6-4, 230-pound defensive end Paul Brott. Sentinel could be in for a long day if West gets into the backfield or closes passing windows.
Who can control the line of scrimmage?
Sentinel has wreaked havoc on offensive lines, tallying 54.5 tackles for loss and 21.5 sacks, fifth and seventh most in AA. With that pressure, the Spartans’ 16 interceptions are third in AA. West’s defense hasn’t racked up as many of those stats, ranking 11th in the 16-team AA with 29.5 TFLs, 14th with five sacks and 11th with six interceptions. Technique and fundamentals will be key.
Who will win the WR-DB battle?
Fourteen Spartans have caught a pass, nine have a TD catch and three have between 301-387 receiving yards, topped by Griz commits TJ Rausch and Jace Klucewich. After facing West's athletic secondary, they'll counter on defense against West’s receivers. Taco Dowler leads the AA with 973 yards and 12 TDs; Daily and Caden Dowler have five TD catches apiece. West quarterback Isaiah Claunch leads the AA in passing yards (2,005) and TD passes (24).
Who can capitalize in the red zone?
Converting red zone opportunities into points will be key. The Spartans have a two-headed running back attack with Soren Syvrud and Donovan South, who've run for 597 and 400 yards, respectively. The team's 7.0 yards per carry and 34 rushing TDs both top the AA. West is third in both, with 5.8 yards per rush and 27 rushing scores, led by Jaymn Medlock and Michael DeLeon with 719 and 532 yards.
Could PATs and FGs decide the game?
Sentinel is nearly automatic on extra points as Camdin Dirnberger has made 47 of 48 and Tyler Delridge is 10 of 10. For West, Spencer Berger has converted 46 of 49, Jacob Kwae is four of five and Jack Bick is three of five. If it comes down to field goals, Dirnberger is three of four with makes from 26, 32 and 28 yards, and Berger is four of six with makes of 20, 42, 26 and 21 yards.
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at email@example.com.
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