Billings Senior vs. Bozeman Gallatin

Billings Senior's Jacob Miller, shown kissing the victory stick after a victory over Bozeman Gallatin two weeks ago, scored the game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds remaining against Bozeman on Thursday night.

BOZEMAN — A few yards separated Billings Senior from the end zone and taking back the lead. Bozeman’s defense, though, stood in the way.

The Broncs ran the ball three straight times, and each time they were stopped short and were forced to call timeout.

A touchdown run with 13 seconds remaining delivered the 31-28 victory for the Broncs. 

“The game’s on the line,” Bozeman’s Jase Applebee recalled thinking. “No matter what we do, we have to put everything, all of our heart, to go stop them right there.”

The Hawks were aiming to win their fourth straight game and remain undefeated in Eastern AA play. Bozeman head coach Levi Wesche began pondering what his team would do if, with Senior facing fourth down and goal at the 1-yard line with 16 seconds to go, what his team would do if it got the ball back.

But none of this materialized. Senior’s Jacob Miller punched the ball into the end zone. As the Broncs celebrated, the Hawks walked back to their sideline.

“Sick,” Applebee described the feeling. “We just lost momentum. We needed to step up in the second half, and we didn’t do that.”

After trailing by 14 points at halftime, the Broncs (4-2, 3-1 Eastern AA) scored 24 in the second half to take a 31-28 conference win over the Hawks (3-3, 3-1) on Thursday at Van Winkle Stadium.

“It’s definitely a huge relief,” Senior head coach Chris Murdock said. “You’re just super happy for the kids. They work so hard, make so many sacrifices, and then they get to experience the win, so that’s rewarding.”

After losing the lead for the first time with 7 minutes, 45 seconds remaining, the Hawks persevered. They compiled a 12-play, 80-yard drive in just over five minutes.

Bozeman quarterback Jake Casagranda completed a 15-yard pass to Bryson Zanto to advance the ball to near midfield. On third and seven, Applebee rushed for 13 yards to Senior’s 34. He later had a 16-yard gain with under four minutes to go.

And to end the possession, Casagranda threw a 13-yard touchdown strike to Avery Allen, who dove to reel in the pass.

“It was a great play,” Casagranda said of Allen’s reception. “He dropped one before, but I knew he would catch the next one so I threw it to him.”

Casagranda completed 24 of 37 passes for 178 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. Three different Hawks — Zanto, Applebee and Luke Smith — caught five passes. Applebee rushed for 113 yards on 24 attempts.

Still, Wesche worried if Bozeman’s production would be enough once the Hawks lost momentum after intermission.

“Good teams stop the run,” he said. “Good teams don’t turn over the ball. We didn’t do either of those things in the second half.”

To start the game, Wesche noted the Hawks established the run on offense, adding that Applebee “had a great game.” The coach also pointed out the Hawks’ offensive line protected Casagranda well, which was a key area of improvement in recent weeks.

The Hawks took the lead less than 10 minutes into the game when Casagranda threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Kendall Stromberg, who also finished the game with a team-high 14 tackles. This completed a 14-play, 66-yard drive.

Later, the Hawks ended an 11-play, 65-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Smith and an eight-play, 58-yard drive with a 5-yard TD pass to Jaxon Cotton.

“Our plays were working,” Casagranda said. “We had momentum. And then I guess we just lost it toward the end.”

On defense, the Hawks were sound fundamentally and tackled well early. They allowed 111 yards of offense before intermission.

“In the second half, we just kind of stuck it in neutral. We missed our assignments,” Wesche said. “I think we missed some tackles in the second half that we weren’t missing in the first half. And they did a good job of making adjustments.”

The Hawks drove to near midfield to start the third quarter, but the Broncs recovered a fumble and returned it to Bozeman’s 15-yard line. Senior ended that drive with a 1-yard touchdown run by Miller. That cut Bozeman’s advantage to one score, and the Broncs scored 10 more unanswered points after that to take the lead for the first time.

Including the game-winning score, Miller totaled four touchdowns with three in the second half. He recorded 138 rushing yards on 30 carries.

“It’s a tough one to take, but our team is resilient,” Wesche said. “It’s a good lesson for us moving forward with the rest of the conference season because we’re a long ways from done with this season. If we give up now, it’s going to be a long next four games.”

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.

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