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Hard-earned win in Eureka sends Vikings to state title game

by JEREMY WEBER
For the Eagle | November 17, 2021 12:00 AM

The Vikings survived a battle of evenly matched teams in the Class B football state semifinals Saturday, punching their ticket to the state title game for the first time in 11 years with a 7-3 win at Eureka.

Bigfork overcame four turnovers and a number of stalled offensive drives to get the victory with the team’s lone touchdown coming on a 3-yard run by George Bucklin with 9:08 to play.

“These kids believed in themselves and they pulled it off. We had a lot of opportunities, but penalties stalled a few of our drives. We just overcame - that has been our story all year long,” Vikings head coach Jim Benn said amidst the celebration after the game. “Our seniors made plays happen when they mattered the most. That's all we can ask for.”

With the win, the Vikings, 9-2, advance to an all-Western B title game against 11-0 Florence-Carlton, a 51-7 winner over Boulder in the other semifinal. The championship will kickoff at 1 p.m. in Florence Saturday.

Bucklin accounted for half of the Vikings 285 yards in the win, leading the team in both rushing (77) and receiving (65) yards. Senior quarterback Patrick Wallen finished the game 9 of 22 passing for 126 yards and added 32 more on the ground while Joseph Farrier ran for 23.

The Lions grabbed a 3-0 lead on a 23-yard Danny Dunn field goal in the closing seconds of a defensively dominated first half in which both teams struggled to find the end zone.

Bigfork’s first possession reached the Eureka 1-yard line before stalling and the Vikings later had a first-half touchdown run by Bucklin called back by block in the back penalty.

The Lions advanced to the Vikings 27 early in the second quarter before turning the ball over on a fumble recovered by Bigfork’s Levi Taylor. The Bigfork defense held the Lions on their own side of the field for most of the second quarter until the drive that led to the Dunn field goal.

“They had a fantastic defensive game plan for us. Chad Dunn is a fantastic defensive coordinator and Eureka is a well-coached team. They are always going to be a tough out in the playoffs because they do things the right way,” Benn said. “It was a grind it out, beyond what you could imagine-type of game. Just two very good defenses and two teams that know each other backwards and forwards.”

Bigfork’s 73-yard game-winning drive was set up by an interception by Wallen at the Bigfork 27-yard line early in the fourth quarter.

Bucklin had runs of 14 and 21 yards to take the ball past midfield, and a facemask penalty at the end of an 8-yard scramble by Wallen moved the ball to the Eureka 25.

Wallen then found Nick Walker with a 22-yard pass, and Bucklin raced into the end zone on the next play.

“All we needed was that one touchdown,” Benn said. “I think if the dam could have burst earlier, it might have been a bit easier for us. Games like this come down to one or two plays.”

The Lions had their chances down the stretch in the fourth quarter, but the Bigfork defense held its ground, stalling Eureka on its own 44 and 17 before a Isak Epperly interception in the game’s closing seconds sealed the win for the Vikings.

“This is just a special group of kids. With everything they have gone through this year, they have just found ways to make things happen and they did it once again,” Benn said. “The biggest thing is that they love each other and they are doing all of this for the right reasons.”

Wyatt Johnson led the strong Vikings defensive effort with three solo tackles while assisting on 13 more. Jordan Betts added seven tackles.

Now, the Vikings attention turns to Florence-Carlton, a team that defeated Bigfork 63-27 to close out the regular season October 22.

“We have our work cut out for us. Florence is loaded, well coached and they have great athletes all over the field. We have to just worry about ourselves and do our best. We'll come up with a plan and see what we can do,” Benn said about the matchup. “We need to just do our best and worry about the things we can control, like our effort, our attitude and our enthusiasm. We get to play in the state championship because we have done that all season.”

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Bigfork's Isak Epperly holds off Eureka defender Caden Pecora in an attempt to catch a pass in the third quarter of the Class B state semifinal Saturday. (Jeremy Weber/Bigfork Eagle)

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Bigfork's Joseph Farrier fights for extra yards in the Vikings 7-2 win at Eureka Saturday. (Jeremy Weber/Bigfork Eagle)

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Led by blockers George Bucklin (11) and Ethan Rodriguez (66), Bigfork running back Levi Taylor (3) makes his way up the field for a big gain in Eureka Saturday. (Jeremy Weber/Bigfork Eagle)

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Bigfork's George Brown hugs teammate Patrick Wallen as the Vikings celebrate their 7-3 win at Eureka in the state semifinals Saturday. (Jeremy Weber/Bigfork Eagle)

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Vikings head coach Jim Benn celebrates with his team after Bigfork's 7-3 win at Eureka in the state semifinal Saturday. (Jeremy Weber/Bigfork Eagle)