MISSOULA — Early momentum is key in crosstown matchups.
Missoula Sentinel got just that.
Missoula Big Sky's Jim Seielstad booted a 54-yard kickoff to begin the game and Sentinel senior Jace DeWalt fielded the kick at the 6-yard line. He darted across the field, hitting the seam along the sideline to put Sentinel up 7-0 just 11 seconds into the game.
... That’s an opening kickoff touchdown by Sentinel’s Jace DeWalt. The senior returned the kick 95 yards for the touchdown.— Amie Just (@Amie_Just) September 1, 2018
Spencer Peppenger’s PAT kick was good.
No. 3 Sentinel leads Big Sky, 7-0, with 11:49 remaining in the first quarter. #mtscores pic.twitter.com/3nfvc7kgjs
"What a way to start it," Sentinel senior quarterback/defensive back Rylan Ortt said of Dewalt's return. "He saw the lane and he just hit it. He's fast. He's really fast. He took it to the house and, wow, not a bad way to start crosstown."
Sentinel senior running back Elias DeWaters added: "It's anybody's game in crosstown. If you can come out and get a big play, smack somebody in the mouth or score a TD right off the bat, you're going to be sitting pretty with some good momentum."
No. 3 Sentinel topped crosstown rival Big Sky, 56-34, and had a hat trick of touchdowns: scoring one on special teams, one on defense and five on offense.
DeWaters led the Spartans with 134 yards on the ground — 72 of which came in the first half. DeWaters also added 42 yards receiving on two catches. And six of those 42 yards were punctuated by a smooth spin move in the second quarter.
"I felt great out there. I think everything was just clicking," DeWaters said of his 176-yard evening. "When everything can come together like that, I think we're a really tough team to beat. It was fun."
He added of the whole team: "I don't think there's a guy on the team that we're afraid to put on the field. Everybody, even to our fourth running back, we're deep. I'm just appalled by the team depth that we have this year that we can put on the field to get success."
Ortt completed 14-of-17 passes for 172 yards and one touchdown, with 75 yards rushing and two rushing touchdowns to boost the Spartans to victory.
"I felt pretty good," Ortt said of both his and Sentinel's overall offensive performance. "We came out strong and fast and then they hit us in the mouth and we didn't respond very well in the first half. Our offense responded well in the second half and we had a solid second half."
Ortt spread the ball around evenly.
His four top receivers — Jack Colyer, DeWalt, DeWaters and Preston Jones — had 38, 32, 42 and 30 yards receiving, respectively. On defense, Ortt also grabbed an interception in the early moments of the fourth quarter.
"It was basic cover two," Ortt said of what he saw on the play. "I saw one go vertical and I looked back to two and the ball was in the air. I had to go make a play. That was it."
Sentinel's head coach Dane Oliver respected the defensive play from his senior quarterback.
"Gritty. He's a high achieving kid," Oliver said of Ortt's performance. "He puts a lot of pressure on himself. It was good to see him get thrown in defensively, more than just at the quarterback position and make a big play when we needed it."
Also on defense, Sentinel sophomore defensive lineman Joseph Holzer and sophomore linebacker Geno Leonard paced the Spartans with seven tackles apiece. Holzer also forced two fumbles. Senior linebacker Brock Field led the charge with sacks, racking up 2½ for a loss of 8½ yards.
The day's leading rusher was Big Sky sophomore Colter Janacaro, following in his older brother Levi's footsteps with 141 yards rushing and a touchdown.
He also completed a pass out of the wildcat formation for 18 yards and had at least 56 yards at kick return for a game-high total of 222 yards on the evening.
"'Seriously? Another Janacaro?' That's all I need to say," Oliver said of Janacaro's efforts.
The Spartans ran out to a 21-6 lead in the first quarter, with additional scores from Ortt, DeWaters and senior kicker Spencer Peppenger.
Over the course of the game, Peppenger made all six of his PAT kicks and nailed two field goals from distances of 22 and 34 yards out.
"Our key guys step up in those big moments," Oliver said of his senior kicker. "Those field goals, we didn't finish in the red zone, but we gotta get points out of it and I thought Spencer did that."
Sentinel may have jumped out to a 21-6 lead by the end of the first quarter, but the Eagles fought right back.
Big Sky scored the first two touchdowns of the second quarter — a pass from senior quarterback Andrew Gardanier to junior wide receiver Ben Maehl and a rushing touchdown by Janacaro — to close the gap to 27-20 with 1:07 remaining before halftime.
Gardanier finished the day with 186 yards passing, completing 10 of his 21 throws with four passing touchdowns. He aired it out to four players, junior wideout Everett Fred, Maehl, senior receiver Wyatt Shinn and Janacaro for 82, 67, 30 and 25 yards respectively.
Maehl scored two of those touchdowns, the one in the second quarter and another one in the third quarter. Shinn's touchdown ended the game and Fred's was a beautiful 67-yard catch and go in the first quarter.
"We had adversity. We got punched in the face, credit to Big Sky," Oliver said after the game.
Sentinel regained some momentum with 10 ticks to go before halftime.
Senior defensive back/running back Blaise Meriwether scooped up a lose fumble and returned it 30 yards along the Sentinel sideline to give the Spartans a 34-20 lead at halftime.
That momentum paired with whatever Oliver told his players at halftime worked.
The Eagles scored first out of the break with another touchdown connection from Gardanier to Maehl, but Ortt had a quarterback keeper and sophomore running back Soren Syvrud had a 5-yard rushing score to put Sentinel up, 49-27 at the end of the third quarter.
"We made some good halftime adjustments," Oliver said. "It was good to see us respond to difficult situations. It's a crosstown. Those moments, they don't feel good at that time, so you've got to respond. I thought our kids did that."
The Eagles didn't give up, though.
Big Sky scored the last touchdown of the game — a 25-yard pass from Gardanier to senior wide receiver Wyatt Shinn — with 2:48 remaining.
Big Sky senior linebacker Zane Holland paced the Eagles with seven tackles. He also added a tackle for loss. Maehl had Big Sky's lone interception, returning the pick for 11 yards in the second quarter to set up a touchdown drive.
Sentinel (2-0) hits the road for the second time this season, taking on Great Falls (2-0) next Friday.
Big Sky (0-2) is at home on Friday, playing C.M. Russell (1-1) next Friday.