By COLIN GAISER
The Daily Inter Lake
Flathead has been a run-first team all season, but even two-time defending state champion Billing Senior couldn’t have prepared for the Braves’ relentless ground attack on Friday night.
Blake Counts racked up 294 yards and quarterback Jaden MacNeil added 181 yards on the ground as the Braves took down the Broncs 52-35 in Class AA quarterfinal action at Legends Stadium.
According to Flathead head football coach Kyle Samson, it was Flathead’s first home playoff win since 2005.
“Big night, big night for our guys. Very proud to be a Brave tonight,” Samson said after the game as players, students and fans savored the moment on the sidelines.
It wasn’t a promising start for Flathead (8-3). After Senior (6-5) stifled Flathead on fourth down, the Broncs needed just four passing plays to go 70 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. It looked like the Braves would struggle to stop Senior quarterback Matt Plasterer and receiver Oran Nash-Bergen.
But Samson could hardly have asked for a better response.
“I think that’s what I’m so proud of. We got down 7-0, came down and responded ... just put the gas on,” Samson said.
Flathead marched down the field for a 10-play, 80-yard drive capped off by a 2-yard Counts touchdown run. The Braves recovered a forced fumble on the ensuing kickoff return, and on the next play MacNeil burned the Broncs defense for a 28-yard touchdown run.
Senior answered with a quick, and impressive touchdown drive, but it took Flathead just three plays to reclaim the lead. MacNeil faked a handoff to Counts at the Braves’ 49-yard line, then burst through the line and scampered nearly untouched for a 51-yard touchdown run.
“Jaden did a tremendous job all night, running the ball, throwing the ball,” Samson said.
“Got to give it to our guys up front, the O-line, D-line. They’re the reason we won tonight. And I’m just so proud of our guys up front, they battled all night.”
The Braves defense came up big on the next drive. Gunnar Landrum and Tanner Russell pounced on Plasterer as he was forced out of the pocket, and Plasterer coughed the ball up. Logan Siblerud recovered the fumble on the Broncs’ 17-yard line.
Counts added another short touchdown run a few plays later, giving the Braves a 28-14 lead early in the second quarter.
The teams traded touchdowns — Flathead’s was a 23-yard strike from MacNeil to senior receiver Anthony Jones — to give Flathead a 35-21 lead before the Braves defense made another critical stop. On a fourth down play deep in Flathead territory, Siblerud leaped high into the air to snatch an interception and possibly prevent a touchdown.
Six plays and a Counts touchdown scramble later, the Braves had a 42-21 lead and 21 points off Broncs turnovers in the first half.
Senior pushed deep into Flathead territory at the end of the second and third quarters, but once again, Flathead came up with big defensive stands.
“Hats off to our defense. They came up with some huge turnovers, some huge fourth-down stops,” Samson said.
Counts earned his fourth touchdown on an uncontested 7-yard run late in the third quarter, putting the game out of reach for the Broncs.
Plasterer had two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to give him four on the night — along with 369 yards passing — but the Braves were already in celebration mode.
Flathead will visit undefeated Bozeman next week in the Class AA semifinal. Bozeman (11-0) beat Great Falls High 49-21 in a quarterfinal game Friday.
The Hawks defeated the Braves 49-34 on Sept. 28.
“We’ll enjoy this tonight, and then we’ll get back to work tomorrow. We’ve got to keep moving forward,” Samson said.
Billings Senior 14 7 0 14 — 35
Flathead 21 21 7 3 — 52
BS – Oran Nash-Bergen 17 pass from Matt Plasterer (Jackson Burckley kick)
F – Blake Counts 2 run (Eric Gardner kick)
F – Jaden MacNeil 28 run (Gardner kick)
BS – Plasterer 1 run (Burckley kick)
F – MacNeil 51 run (Gardner kick)
F – Counts 2 run (Gardner kick)
BS – Nash-Bergen 23 pass from Plasterer (Burckley kick)
F – Anthony Jones 24 pass from MacNeil (Gardner kick)
F – Counts 3 run (Gardner kick)
F – Counts 7 run (Gardner kick)
BS – Junior Bergen 33 pass from Plasterer (Burckley kick)
F – Gardner 32 FG
BS – Nash-Bergen 32 pass from Plasterer (Burckley kick)
First downs 30 27
Rushes-yards 36-189 54-508
Passing yards 369 51
Passing (att-comp-int) 40-23-2 12-4-1
Penalties-yds 5-45 9-85
Fumbles-lost 2-2 3-1
Punts-avg 2-23.5 1-33
Kickoff returns-yds 6-246 9-435
Int. (No. -yds) 1-6 2-52
RUSHING – Billings Senior, Matt Plasterer 12-70, Oran Nash-Bergen 6-48, Gunner Hegg 7-31, Alyas Wright 9-26, Junior Bergen 1-14. Flathead, Blake Counts 29-294, Jaden MacNeil 17-181, Chance Sheldon-Allen 4-33.
PASSING – Billings Senior, Matt Plasterer 40-23-2-369. Flathead, Jaden MacNeil 12-4-1-51.
RECEIVING – Billings Senior, Oran Nash-Bergen 8-119, Junior Bergen 6-99, Nick Eliason 5-84, Jackson Burckley 3-53, Gunner Hegg 1-14. Flathead, Anthony Jones 4-51.