MILES CITY — If the previous playoff meetings between the two schools are any indication, this afternoon’s Class A semifinal football showdown between the second-ranked Dillon Beavers and third-ranked Miles City Cowboys could be one for the ages at Denton Field.
The perennial Class A powers have met three times in the playoffs since 2000 — combining for 28 playoff victories and five state championships over that time — with Dillon prevailing all three times. The most recent meeting was in 2005, when the Beavers upset the Cowboys 24-21 in a triple-overtime thriller in Miles City.
“It certainly seems like every time we’ve played them in the playoffs, it’s been a great football game all the way through,” said Dillon head coach Terry Thomas, who is 192-73 in 24 seasons. “And I don’t expect this one to be any different.”
While both squads have overpowered their opponents in 2010, contrasting offensive styles have been used by Thomas and Miles City head coach Dan Stanton to get their teams to this point.
As for the 10-1 Cowboys, they will turn to dual-threat senior quarterback Shane Cooley to lead their run-first attack.
Cooley has run for 1,201 yards and 14 touchdowns to lead an explosive Cowboy running game that’s averaging 267 yards per contest.
“Our running game is first and foremost for us to be successful,” said Stanton. “But the better our running game, the more it opens up our passing game and we’ve come along way in (the passing game) this year.”
While running backs Tyler Essex and Kyle Stanton have combined to gain over 1,000 yards on the ground and 17 touchdowns, it’s Cooley’s arm that’s helped the Cowboys offense churn out over 2,600 yards on the ground through 11 games.
“(Cooley) has really improved as a passer as the season’s progressed,” said Thomas. “He’s shown that you can’t just load up to stop the run against them because they can beat you with the pass too.”
Cooley has thrown for just under 900 yards and 12 touchdowns, with his main target being Kyle Stanton.
Not only has Stanton run for over 400 yards and scored eight touchdowns, but the 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior has hauled in 19 passes for 342 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Essex, however, is questionable for today’s game due to a foot sprain suffered in the Cowboys 54-26 first-round win over Havre.
“He’s day-to-day,” said Stanton on Thursday. “He’s been practicing this week but we’ll see how he responds and feels and go from there.”
For Dillon, the Beavers boast their most balanced attack since going to a spread offense in 2003 and are led by junior quarterback J.T. Linder, who ran for five touchdowns — all under five yards — in the Beavers’ 49-26 quarterfinal victory last weekend.
“We’ve done a great job of mixing the run and the pass together, and a lot of that is because of J.T.,” Thomas noted. “But our offensive line as done a tremendous job of playing their responsibilities.”
On the season, Linder has completed 64 percent of his passes (94 of 148) for 1,361 yards and 17 touchdowns. He’s also rushed for 286 yards, finding the end zone eight times.
“He has done a tremendous job this season with our offense,” Thomas said of his quarterback, who was a Southwestern A second-team quarterback selection as sophomore last season. ““He’s starting to learn where and who to get the ball to and why, we’ve asked him to read a lot of defenses and coverage’s and I’m just real impressed with his decision-making.”
While Linder gets most the accolades, he has plenty of weapons around him.
“They have a lot of players than can beat,” said Stanton. “Obviously J.T. is a big threat and makes their offense click but he’s not the only one on that team that can make plays. We definitely need to play smart defensively if we want to be successful.”
Running backs Kyle Cox (470 yards) and Garrett Altenburg (404) have combined for nearly 900 yards on the ground for Dillon, while Hunter Johnson has tallied 535 yards on 29 catches, with eight touchdowns, to lead a balanced receiving corps.
Rounding out the Beaver offense, which averages nearly 400 yards per game and 42 points, are receivers Wes Knox (326 yards) and Austin Williams (338).
Likely returning to action for Dillon today will be sophomore Ben Folsom. Folsom sat out the Beavers’ quarterfinal game last Saturday after suffering from flu-like symptoms and dehydration.
Ben Folsom amassed over 1,000 yards of total offense (536 passing, 225 rushing and 276 receiving) and accounted for 14 touchdowns for Dillon.
While both high-powered offenses have moved the ball relatively easily this season, finding success today likely won’t be as easy.
“Our defense has been the strength for us all season,” added Stanton, “The kids really pride themselves on not giving up points — a lot like the 2008 team did when we won the title.”
The Miles City defense has allowed a total of 81 points in 11 games— 39 of those have come in two playoff games — while Dillon has surrendered just 67 in nine contests this season.
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.