One more nudge the wrong way, Joe Curtiss realized, and the rest of the season would be lost.
The Billings Outlaws staggered into the locker room at halftime trailing 45-31. Most of the players were angry with the quick turn of events. A few were disgusted. A couple just sat in silence.
The Wyoming Cavalry scored two touchdowns in the final 10.1 seconds of the first half to break a 31-31 tie.
Wyoming quarterback Matt Strand completed a four-yard scoring pass to Charlie Ricks and, on the ensuing kick off, Billings' Jaquwan Brackenridge fumbled the ball in the end zone and Romail Gordon recovered for the second Cavalry score.
Another knee-buckling turnover. Turnovers had been the Achilles' heel of Billings all season. The Outlaws lead the National Indoor Football League in turnovers and were a large reason for their 2-4 record entering the game.
Nobody dared point a finger at Brackenridge, the vocal leader of the Outlaws. Earlier in the first quarter, Brackenridge returned a kick off 45 yards for a Billings touchdown. He was playing both offense and defense, along with special teams.
No one protested when Brackenridge, called "Q" by teammates and staff, spoke loudly out at halftime.
"It was calm in there, only Q was yelling," said Curtiss. "It wasn't like a panic situation. A lot of guys have been here before. They knew what had to be done."
Curtiss put it in simple terms: Any playoff hopes would be determined by the final two quarters of the game.
"I don't know if we would have recovered if we had lost that game," said Curtiss, a few days later, speaking of the season.
On the second play of the second half, Strand rifled a 23-yard touchdown pass to Norm Thomas.
Just like that, Billings was down by 20, 51-31.
Fans started to get restless, with some glancing at their watches to determine when it was a proper time to leave.
"The defense needed to get some stops," said Travis Salter, a defensive lineman for the Outlaws. "When we play up to our potential, we win. It's that simple."
Billings answered with an 8-yard scoring pass to Fontez Jefferson from quarterback Albert Higgs.
"This game is so much momentum," said Curtiss. "One (defensive) stop can turn a game around."
Wyoming took the ball, but not for long. Salter rocked Strand, forcing a fumble. Fou Mamea of Billings recovered. Two plays later, Jay LeProwse scored from 1 yard out.
One stop, one score, whole new ballgame. And members the crowd stopped looking at their watches.
"That play of Salter, that gave us the momentum we needed," said Curtiss.
For Salter it was the longest he had played against the Cavalry. In the first meeting two weeks ago, Salter, along with Wyoming's Bear Barley, were tossed in the second quarter. That first game was filled with trash talk and plenty of shoves after the whistle. The second game was no different.
"There is a lot of animosity on the field," Salter acknowledged.
Salter and Wyoming offensive lineman Ted Aden exchanged pleasantries throughout the game. And it continued after the final horn.
"He wants to fight me in the parking lot," Salter added with a sweaty shrug.
"If I was him (Aden), I might let that pass," said Curtiss when hearing about Aden's challenge.
There was no word if Salter and Aden actually met. Maybe we'll see the rubber match in the post-season.
In the fourth quarter, Wyoming drove to Billings' 5-yard line. But a penalty and consecutive sacks by Luke Twibell and Chase Raynock — for a 10-yard loss — along with another penalty, put the Cavalry out of field goal range.
Raynock's time on the defensive line came after much begging and eventually necessity.
Starter Andy Petek left the game in the first half with a hip pointer and the other defensive linemen were getting tired.
And … "Raynock's been bugging me for weeks," Curtiss said of his offensive lineman. "We gave him a shot in the fourth quarter when we started wearing down. That was a great play.
"Fontez (Jefferson) also played defensive line for us. He thought he was going in at cornerback, until we told him no. He didn't fare as well as Chase."
Raynock shouldn't get too excited and expect too many snaps on the defensive side of the ball.
"If you noticed, he got tired real fast," Curtiss finished with another laugh.
With Higgs delivering clutch passes and one huge, 28-yard touchdown run, the Outlaws rallied for a 65-62 victory.
"That was fun," said Curtiss.
The season is not over. The Outlaws finish the second half of the regular season with five of their final seven games on the road.
Curtiss understands the team was (ital) thisclose (end ital) from spiraling out of his control the rest of the year. Now he expects the Outlaws back in the post-season come July.
"There is a lot of pride on this team," said Curtiss. "Guys like Q, Keyon Kemp, James Owens, have decided to live here and know the community.
"Anybody who doesn't think these guys have the passion, they should go down to our training room on Monday."
(Joe Kusek can be reached at 657-1393 or email@example.com)