MISSOULA — Coach Dane Oliver knows from experience it's dangerous to assume anything when it comes to the Sentinel-Big Sky football rivalry.
Two years ago his Spartans savored an upset win over the Eagles at Missoula County Stadium, tarnishing Big Sky's sparkling 8-2 record. Three years ago his playoff-qualifying Sentinel team was on the short end of a 26-20 thriller.
Oliver's fourth-ranked Spartans (4-1) are a decided favorite to make it three in a row over the Eagles (1-4) Friday in an all-Missoula Western AA clash at 7 p.m. Still, you'd never know it by talking to him.
"It's almost always a tight game when we play crosstown," Oliver noted. "There's some long, athletic receivers on that (Eagles) team and they play with a certain toughness that always defines Big Sky.
"They've been in almost every game they've played. It's going to be a matter of taking care of the ball and matching their physicality."
The Spartans and Eagles are both coming off disappointing losses. Sentinel fell victim to a late field goal by second-ranked Butte. Big Sky raced to a 21-6 lead on Kalispell Glacier before fading.
"One major positive in that game was the way we ran the football," Big Sky coach Matt Johnson said. "It was the most efficient and effective we ran the football to date. Kudos to the O-line and you can't give Jett (Rebish) enough credit. He had 170 rushing yards and I think he had a couple catches."
Johnson and the Eagles would like nothing more than to keep Sentinel's offense on the sideline Friday by putting together long, sustained drives.
"They're pretty good at their screen game," Johnson noted. "We have to be able to handle their skill kids and those short passes.
"We also have to be able to stop the run without having a gimmick to stop it. Then when we're on offense, we need to take care of the ball. Bozeman was the only game I think where we were ahead in the turnover category."
The good news for the Spartans is that the flaws that led to last week's loss are fixable, according to Oliver.
"We hope the kids will respond this week — I think they will," he said. "We had 19 new guys playing that are starters and that showed up a little bit.
"But (quarterback) Dayton Bay, I think at one point he was 22-for-22 throwing the football. That's unbelievable."
If Bay plays with that same consistency this week, the Spartans will be tough to beat.
Hellgate (3-1) is coming off its first loss, 42-20, at third-ranked Helena (4-1) last week. The Knights will have their hands full again this Friday at Glacier.
The light bulb went on for the Wolfpack offense last week in its game at Big Sky. Glacier (2-3) exploded for 43 unanswered points.
Hellgate senior quarterback Rollie Worster had a rock-solid performance at Helena. He will likely need to do that again against a Grady Bennett-led Glacier team that's notorious for putting up big scoring numbers.
Loyola Sacred Heart (3-2) will put its No. 6 ranking on the line Friday at Anaconda (0-5). The injury-depleted Rams delivered a gutsy performance last week in a 21-11 win over Bigfork.
On paper the Copperheads look like a pushover. But the Rams haven't played on the road for three weeks and haven't won on the road since August. Friday could be a challenge if they're forced to stick with sophomore quarterback Keenan Russell, who is filling in for injured senior Nick Mitzel.
On the other hand, Russell came on in the second half against Bigfork, throwing for two touchdowns and running for one.
"It took us a little while but we got it figured out," Rams coach Todd Hughes said after last Friday's game. " ... I was really pleased with our young quarterback."
Valley Christian (1-4) aims to end its four-game losing streak at Gardiner (2-2).
The Eagles dropped a 47-13 home verdict to undefeated and third-ranked Hot Springs last Saturday. The Bruins started the season with two home wins before being humbled on the road the past two weeks, losing lopsided decisions to Stanford/Geyser/Denton and White Sulphur Springs.