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Two exceptionally good teams played in Missoula last Friday.

The nature of Butte’s undefeated season and Billings West’s attempted defense of their 2018 state championship may have overshadowed the Class AA Semifinal between Bozeman and Missoula Sentinel, but anyone that followed the Class AA football season knows that the 28-21 final between the Hawks and Spartans was between teams that belonged there.

For Bozeman, the Hawks were the only team that had beaten Billings West in the Golden Bears’ attempted championship defense in a 26-20 home win.

Missoula Sentinel were the only team to truly hang with Butte, losing 39-36 in the regular season on a last-second Casey Kautzman field goal after being the only squad to take a first-half lead over the Bulldogs.

A pair of games later, rivals Bozeman and Butte are all that remain, the only two schools to beat Class AA’s No. 2 and No. 4 seeds. Bozeman head coach Levi Wesche wouldn’t have it any other way.

“To be the best you’ve got to beat the best,” Wesche said. “Butte’s been that team all year long. Their resume speaks for itself and the way they play, offensively, defensively, special teams… They’re the cream of the crop in Montana football this year and we’re trying to go in there and show how much we’ve improved throughout the year. Hopefully, it’s close in the fourth quarter and we can make something happen.

From the Bulldogs’ perspective, it is another strong defensive opponent after the 35-6 win over West.

Butte was taking on a Golden Bears’ defense that allowed just 11.9 points per game. The Hawks, with playoff games included, are averaging an impressive 9.3 points a game on defense.

Bozeman not only better West in terms of opponent scoring average, but are dominant in several defensive categories.

The Hawks have sacked the quarterback 31 times, 12 of them coming from junior defensive end Kenneth Eiden IV, who doubles as a multi-purpose offensive weapon.

Eiden is the product of the strategy that Bozeman and Wesche have implemented, which is putting a priority on winning “in the trenches.”

“We take pride in trying to control the line of scrimmage,” Wesche said. “We try to put together a great offensive and defensive line, put great athletes at those spots, especially on the defensive line to help create a pass rush. We also pride ourselves on not having to blitz through the pressure unless we choose to, and we play a lot of man coverage behind it. Having that good pass rush is extremely important.”

On top of that, Bozeman has forced 25 turnovers, picking off opposing quarterback 16 times. Butte quarterback Tommy Mellott has dealt with previous challenges well, but Bozeman will likely be the most pressure and overall strongest defense the senior has played.

Wesche says that focusing on Mellott will be key, but that his contributions to the run game, along with running backs Kameron and Kobe Moreno will be the focus.

As for the game plan, it’s about containing rather than stopping.

“We’ll try to limit them,” Wesche said. “Limit the big plays. You can’t completely shut down the Moreno twins or Mellott, they’re too good of players. If you try to completely wipe them out, you’re setting yourself up for failure. For us, it’s about limiting the big plays, no carries over 12 yards. Try to put them in a long down-and-distance situations where they can’t run the ball like they want to.”

Bozeman’s defense has allowed a stunning 70 yards per game on the ground, while the Butte offense has averaged an impressive 265 rushing yards in their 11 contests.

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Ever hear something about an “unstoppable force meeting an unmovable object?”

At the beginning of the playoffs, Butte head coach Arie Grey mentioned the importance of running the football, and after the trio of Mellott and Morenos have continued their regular season success in the playoffs, that sentiment is just as relevant.

“We’re going to have to be dynamic in the run game,” Grey said. “Which is what we’ve been able to do all year. Another thing we have to be able to do. When you play a good defensive front like that, you have to know what they’re doing. They’re going to stand, they’re going to twist, do different things. I like what we do in our run game, and we’re going to have a couple new wrinkles but we’ll have things we just have to keep getting better at.”

On paper, this is the best defense the Bulldogs offense has faced, and vice versa for the Bozeman defense. However, when the two sides are flipped, the matchup remains just as interesting.

When you look at the Hawks' offense, the first name that comes to mind is senior running back Asher Croy. 

Croy has been the Hawks' main source of consistency and explosiveness, the former seen through his 6.3 yards per carry average, the latter seen through his 16 touchdowns on the year, and both qualities being exemplified by how he has remarkably broken the 100-yard rushing barrier on seven different times this season.

Behind Croy and quarterback Jake D'Agostino, Bozeman has put up an average 32 points per contest, which is less than West’s average heading into the semifinals, but analysis of the Hawks’ point totals show that the difference doesn’t especially matter.

The Hawks’ four games coming up to the state championship was a gauntlet: Billings West to close the regular season, followed by a rematch against Missoula Big Sky, who bested Bozeman 21-18 earlier in the year, Helena High, and then No. 2 seed Missoula Sentinel.

The offense averaged 24.5 points over the four-game span, but what they lacked in firepower they made up for in clutch scoring, putting up second-half touchdowns in three of their last four games and overcoming a 10-0 deficit against West to hand the Golden Bears’ their first loss of the year.

Wesche talked about the importance of being efficient, and that the Hawks are able to be clutch by focusing on a consistent performance and sticking to their system.

“We try to establish the ground game,” Wesche said. “Our offensive line is very physical and we have playmakers on the outside. We’re trying to manage the game and not put our defense in bad field position and make offenses go a long way. We want to be extremely efficient by running the football and controlling the clock.”

Bozeman’s proneness to be in close games and high-pressure situations is starkly different from the Butte experience. Taking large leads into halftime has been the norm for the Bulldogs all season, save for the Sentinel game.

Earlier in the playoffs, Grey stressed the need for consistent play over four quarters, and the Bulldogs’ head coach highlighted that ahead of Butte’s final game of the year.

“We’ve got to play a clean football game,” Grey said. “But every game has to be a clean football game. It doesn’t matter if it is a game one or it’s in the backyard, it’s got to be clean. The team that’s clean is the team that’s successful. We’ve done a nice job of taking care of the ball and creating turnovers so that’s another big part of this week.”

The numbers tell an interesting story for Bozeman, but the Hawks are a team that transcend the stats. The defense has been utterly dominant, which plays a factor, but it’s also just the nature of the game: good teams win, no matter the situation.

Now, teams that differ in their journeys, identities and culture meet up in the biggest occasion they can. Those distinct differences ought to produce a dynamic state championship ought, and neither school could ask for anything more.

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