MISSOULA — With just three seconds left on the scoreboard at Missoula County Stadium, Butte kicker Casey Kautzman was alone with his thoughts.
The sophomore knew the game was going to come down to his leg. But nervousness wasn’t really going through his mind. Rather, he was focused on coming through in a big way to send his Butte Bulldogs home with a win.
And with the rain pouring down in a tie game against Missoula Sentinel, Kautzman stepped on the field, and did just that.
Kautzman drilled a 37-yard field goal as time expired to propel No. 2 Butte to a 39-36 win over No. 3 Sentinel on Thursday night in a battle of Class AA heavyweights. The Bulldogs improved to 5-0 while Sentinel fell to 4-1.
“I wasn’t thinking about the rain but I knew a lot was on the line so I knew I just had to make that one,” Kautzman said. “It wasn’t the best kick but it went through so that’s all that matters.”
Kautzman’s kick added just another layer of drama in what was a great football game. His effort just snuck across the bar, but when it did it sent the Butte coaches and players into jubilation.
“It wasn’t the best (kick) and I could feel it was off my toe, but watching it go in was awesome,” an elated Kautzman said. “It was crazy. Everyone came jumping on me. It was crazy.”
The wild finish summed up a game that lived up to the hype. Right out of the gates the teams were firing in the first half.
Senior quarterback Tommy Mellott guided Butte on the game’s opening drive before capping it with a 4-yard rushing score to put Butte on the board first.
But Sentinel wasted no time in responding. Junior quarterback Dayton Bay hit senior Preston Jones for the first of their three first-half TD connections on a screen pass and Jones quickly turned up field and went 68 yards to put Sentinel in a position to tie the game, 7-7.
Sentinel held Butte to a turnover on downs on the next drive before turning that into more points as Bay and Jones connected on a corner route for a 14-yard touchdown early in the second quarter. But Butte quickly struck back, as Mellott converted on fourth-and-7 on Sentinel’s 23 on a run to put the Bulldogs on the 5-yard line. Senior Kameron Moreno punched it in on a 1-yard touchdown not long after, and Mellott added the 2-point conversion on a fake kick to make it 15-14.
After Sentinel turned it over after a high snap, Butte quickly cashed in, as Mellott scored on another rushing touchdown, this time from 12 yards out.
But on the following Sentinel drive, Bay hit Jones on the second play from scrimmage for a 46-yard touchdown after Jones snuck past Butte’s secondary to get wide open. Senior Jaxon Lee added the 2-point conversion to tie it.
“I thought we kept our composure and responded really well,” Sentinel coach Dane Oliver said. “There’s things that will clean up like every high school game but overall I was proud. We played hard.”
And for the third time tonight, Bay and Jones connect for a touchdown. This time it goes for 46 yards as Jones slipped by and was wide open. Jaxon Lee then takes it in for the 2-point conversion and we’re tied 22-22 with 4:29 to play. It’s a ballgame folks. #mtscores pic.twitter.com/PBrlbqdPwE— Kyle Hansen (@khansen406) September 27, 2019
Sentinel capped the first half off with a 10-yard touchdown between Bay and backup quarterback Zac Crews. That drive was set up by a 34-yard screen play between Bay and Lee as the Spartans went into the break up, 29-22.
“Hats off to Sentinel,” Butte coach Arie Grey said. “It was a great test for us because we didn’t have a great first half. Sentinel dictated everything. The message at halftime was like, OK, we have to go. We have to quit making simple mistakes. We can’t do that against a good team like Sentinel and I’m proud with how the kids responded.”
The rain began to come down in the second half as Sentinel began the third quarter with the ball. The Spartans turned the ball over on downs as junior Aidan Lee, who recovered the fumble on the high snap earlier, batted the pass down at the line.
“That was huge,” Grey said of that defensive stop. “That was a big drive for us. We challenged the defense to get a stop and we did and that kind of set us up for the rest of the night.”
That quickly turned into a score for the Bulldogs, again on the legs of Mellott, who punched it in on a 1-yard TD with 5:36 left in the third.
Lee found the end zone for his first touchdown of the game on a 3-yard dive up the middle just a few minutes later to put the Spartans back on top. But the fireworks continued just a couple of minutes into the final frame when Mellott hit Moreno on a 29-yard score to even things up again. Moreno slipped out of the backfield on a wheel route and had nothing but green in front of him on the score.
Sentinel took almost five minutes off the clock as it drove down to Butte’s 15-yard line on the next drive. But facing a fourth-and-3, Bay, who only had two incomplete passes all night, was picked off at the 1-yard line by Butte junior Ryan Neil who took it all the way back to Sentinel’s 48.
All of that drama set up Kautzman’s game-winner.
“If there was a kid that’s put a lot of time into kicking, it’s Casey,” Grey said. “He’s built his own little goal post in his yard and kudos to him and kudos to the line and everybody. That was a big play. It’s nice to get out of here with a win and we’ll take that.”
Mellott, who will play college football at Montana State, finished the game 16 for 26 with 170 yards and one touchdown pass. He added 89 yards on the ground on 17 carries with three scores. Moreno tallied 112 yards on 25 carries. Senior Tucker Winston led Butte in receiving with four catches for 38 yards.
Bay finished the game 23 for 25 for 321 yards and four touchdowns and one interception. All of Bay’s touchdown passes came in the first half as he went 12 for 12 for 237 yards. Jones finished the game with seven catches for 178 yards and three scores while Lee added five catches for 51 yards and also tallied 62 yards on 14 carries. Sentinel finished with 388 yards on offense while Butte had 364.
“We’re going to be just fine as long as we stay unified,” Oliver said of his postgame message. “It’s an emotional game but Butte’s a good team and it was a fun high school football game. I’m proud of the effort tonight and for the community to come out and support us. Hopefully we see them down the road.”
Butte hosts Helena Capital (3-1) next week while Sentinel will face off against crosstown rival Missoula Big Sky (1-3) next Friday.