BILLINGS — On Friday night against Bozeman, Billings Senior found itself in a spot that it hasn't been in in over a year.
The Broncs were trailing.
The Bozeman Hawks jumped all over Senior in the first half of Friday night's opening-round Class AA football playoff game. However, three second-half rushing touchdowns from Nolan Askelson and Gabe Sulser gave the Broncs the much needed surge late en route to a 35-25 win over the Hawks. It was Senior's 24th straight win.
"Our guys showed tremendous heart," Senior coach Chris Murdock said. "We talked about just the things that got us here, you know what I mean? And our guys just never stopped believing. I'm really proud of our kids and our coaching staff for staying the course. What a fun game. Hats off to Bozeman. I think they're as good as anybody in the state."
Bozeman led 18-15 at halftime and 25-15 with just over seven minutes left in the third quarter after quarterback Kris Brown found Ryan Simpson for an 18-yard score. It was the first time Senior had trailed at halftime since Oct. 14, 2016 at Great Falls CMR.
The Hawks opened the game right from the get-go, literally. On the opening kickoff, Latrell McCutcheon fielded the kick and immediately ran parallel with teammate Logan Kleinhans. Kleinhans, a Montana State football commit, took the handoff and he was gone, 95 yards, to give Bozeman a 7-0 lead 13 seconds into the game.
"We're not really used to that," Sulser said about trailing early. "It was just a lot of adversity. We said at halftime that championship teams always come back. I think Bozeman came out and played really well. It's playoff football, that's the best way to put it."
After another Kleinhans touchdown, Senior had to reach deep for tricks, and that came with 6:40 left in the game. Askelson took the snap, threw it left to Sulser on a screen, who took a couple of steps then threw it back to Askelson, who took it to the house from 25 yards out thanks to some key blocking, including a big one from lineman Max Evenson. That made it 15-15.
Bozeman came out of the gates hot again, and their offense had no issue moving the ball en route to Simpson's touchdown. Senior scored in just over a minute on an Askelson 2-yard run to make it 25-22, before taking the lead for good on another 2-yard touchdown from Sulser with 1:34 left in the third. Senior's defense did a good job of pressuring Brown, who in turn was doing well to avoid that and make plays. Junior lineman Garrison Poetzl added a couple of sacks on Brown and plenty of stops in the backfield to help engineer and settle the Broncs on defense. Poetzl, who started all of last year for Senior, has been a key cog of young lineman that have stepped up this year.
"I'm getting ready for the next game already. I'm ready for Monday and practice," Poetzl said. "There's three two-way starters on our line, with me, Max, and Gunner (Hegg). We can get a little tired out there, but we've been conditioning for years in the program so we've been ready. I'm glad we got that win."
Sulser padded Senior's lead with a 34-yard score with 7:27 left. Sulser squeezed through the line and found some space while toeing the line, surprising everyone and giving Senior the final score that it needed.
"It looked pretty tight, and there were a bunch of bodies over there," Sulser, who always came up with a big pass deflection late on defense, said. "It's always good when you have Nolan and Blake (Allred) and the guards blocking for you. I saw a little crease and I just tried my best to keep my toes in and knew once I got past that initial charge that we could score on it."
Asked about whether Sulser still surprises him, Murdock laughed and said, "I'm always amazed by him. I'm glad he's on our team."
Sulser finished with 20 carries for 135 yards and three touchdowns, six catches for 59 yards and then his 25-yard touchdown pass. Askelson also tallied 126 yards on the ground and 123 yards through the air.
Kleinhans finished with four catches for 91 yards and a touchdown along with his kickoff return score. Brown was 17 for 33 for 293 yards and two scores while Simpson finished with seven catches for 120 yards. The Hawks finish their season 5-6.
"They really put it all out of the field and gave 100 percent effort," Bozeman coach Levi Wesche said. "That's the best team in the state and we came out prepared. In the end, just a couple miscues here and there cost us but I'm proud of our seniors and I wish I could've done more for them."
Senior (11-0) will host Missoula Sentinel (6-4) next Friday in Billings in the semifinals.
"We're getting close to our prime," Poetzl said. "Hopefully we get there in two games."