Subscribe for 17¢ / day
West quarterback Brady Gustafson
West quarterback Brady Gustafson, here hugging receiver Jayc Van Zee during a game last month, has thrown for 2,397 yards this season.

Paul Klaboe hopes a pair of intracity nail-biters the past few weeks will pay dividends for his Billings West team tonight.

West (9-2) visits Helena High (10-1) in a Class AA semifinal football game at 7 tonight at Helena’s Vigilante Stadium, a contest that Klaboe expects to have a tone similar to the Golden Bears’ wins over Billings Senior (24-21) and Billings Skyview (14-13) the past two weeks.

“It’s good to have those two wins under our belt,” Klaboe said. “When you get into those tight games and come out on top, you understand what it takes the next time. You have to dig a little deeper in the fourth quarter to make plays to pull out those close games, and we’re expecting another one” tonight.

The West offense was in high gear for much of the season before hitting a speed bump the past two weeks. The Bears will need to crank it back up tonight against a Helena defense that’s the best in Class AA, allowing just 13.5 points per game.

The Bengals’ blitzing defense has tallied 34 sacks, forced 14 fumbles and intercepted 20 passes this season.

“Blitz pick-up will be the key to the game for us,” said Klaboe, who’s looking to guide West into the Class AA championship game for the fourth time since 2005. “Helena will bring people from all different positions and all different angles.

“They’ll blitz on passing downs and running downs. We have to be able to handle it. We can’t turn anybody loose.”

West will look to regain the offensive balance it’s had for much of the season. Junior quarterback Brady Gustafson has thrown for 2,397 yards and 17 touchdowns, while junior running back Clay Compton has rushed for 1,023 yards and 17 TDs.

Klaboe said mistakes have hurt the Golden Bears on offense in the past two weeks.

“Against Senior, we weren’t able to establish a good run-pass mix the whole night,” he said. “And against Skyview, we just hurt ourselves all night with sacks, interceptions, dropped passes and penalties.

“Those two teams both play good defense, so they deserve some of the credit for that. And those intracity games are always different. Those are the kids you see in the mall all year so those are the ones you really want to win. We’ve had a good week of practice this week and cleaned some things up.”

Helena ranks third in Class AA in rushing at 216 yards per game — despite losing all-state running back Nelo Butler to an injury in the preseason.

Junior Sy Keltner has filled in nicely for Butler, running for 1,119 yards and six touchdowns. Sean Blomquist has added 627 yards and 15 TDs on the ground for the Bengals.

“Helena has been a strong running team for a long time,” Klaboe said. “They’ve got a lot of juniors on offense that have really played well. By this time of the year, they’ve got 11 games under their belt and they’re not really juniors anymore. They’re a confident group.”

Tonight’s game marks the first time West has played Helena since the 2008 regular season, and only the second time the two have met in the postseason. The first was the 1998 championship game, won by West.

West leads the all-time series 31-12 and has won 14 of the past 17 meetings.

“Our kids are excited,” Klaboe said. “They know Helena is a heck of a team and it’s going to take a solid effort and a mistake-free effort to win the game. But that’s the way it should be at this time of the year.

“We weren’t in the playoffs last year and these kids have put in a lot of work to get us back to this point. These kinds of games are the reason they put in all that work.”