What a difference a year can make.
Last season at the midway point, in their first year of existence, the Billings Bullets were sitting at 2-2 in the Rocky Mountain Football League standings with little hope of qualifying for the playoffs.
Fast forward 12 months and first-year head coach, Jeff Kumpula and his coaching staff are right were they want to be at the halfway point this season – holding their playoff destiny in their own hands.
“We are much better off at this point in the season than we were a year ago,” said Kumpula. “We still have the opportunity to host a home playoff game and that's something we set out to achieve at the beginning of the season.”
The Bullets (3-1) sit in second place of the Montana Division behind rival and unbeaten Great Falls, and rank in the top 10 in most statistical categories. The Bullets can also boast league leaders across the board as they have solidified championship-contender expectations.
“We are happy with where we are at as a squad,” Kumpula said. “We had our best and most relaxed practice of the year (on Thursday) and we were able to focus on implementing a game plan.”
While Kumpula and his staff are pleased with the team's start, they went into the bye week with a sour taste in their mouth. They had their franchise-record four-game winning streak – dating back to the season finale a year ago – end on May 6 when they lost to the Gladiators at Great Falls, 43-29.
“That was a tough one ... it hurt,” Kumpula admitted. “We let the emotion of the game, the officiating, and some things on the sideline take over and that's not Bullet football. But it really brought us closer as a family and we have all learned from that loss and are a better team because of it.”
The Bullets will have a chance to avenge that loss on Saturday when they host the Gladiators at 1 p.m. on Wendy's Field at Daylis Stadium.
“We gave that game to them,” Kumpula said. “We are excited for the opportunity to take it back on our turf.”
So what has been the recipe for success during the early going?
Offensive coordinator Ken Blankenship has been dealt the task of spreading the ball around among the Bullets multiple weapons.
“Ken has done a great job of mixing things up and spreading things around and mixing up our formations,” Kumpula said. “We have enough weapons in our offense that if the opponent shuts one guy down, we can go to someone else and have confidence in them to make plays.”
The Bullets feature the league's fifth-ranked rushing offense (122 yards/game) and sixth-ranked passing offense (145 yards/game), while ranking fourth in points per game at 33.
Jamel Scott (203 yards on 37 carries) and Mike Spence (197 yards on 39 carries) lead the Bullets rushing attack while Blake Boston (220 yards receiving), Richard Trieber (12 catches and 3 TD's) and Josh Caseres (10 yards/catch) lead a balanced wide receiving group.
First-year quarterback Cody Mack has completed 55 percent of his passes for 579 yards.
While the offense has been on fire over the recent weeks, their defense has been equally as hot, not allowing a point through the team's first three games.
“You know teams in this league are going to score points so that streak was nice,” Kumpula added with a laugh. “But it is nice to not have that pressure on us.”
Middle linebacker and co-defensive captain Matt Groff ranks third in the league in tackles with 30, while fellow linebacker Chad Hoffman has forced four fumbles.
“The biggest key for us this season has been the turnover battle,” Kumpula noted. “We have not allowed any points on our turnovers and have been able to convert on the takeaways we have forced.”
As a team the Bullets rank seventh in scoring defense at 10.2 points per game, but have registered three shutouts and are allowing just 44 yards per game on the ground.
“It's been great to have such a balanced team,” Kumpula said. “Our defense gets to sit on the sideline and watch the offense do their thing and then they go out and get the offense the ball back. Nobody's complaining about reps or playing time or stats. They just want to win.”
The top two teams in each division advance to the playoffs with each division winner being guaranteed a home playoff game, something Kumpula would love to bring the city of Billings.
“This group of guys has an extreme amount of pride in their community and would love to give Billings a championship,” Kumpula stated. “They know that no game is bigger than the next one and we have to stay with that mentality if we want to achieve our preseason goals.”