MISSOULA — Dane Oliver rolled the dice and Missoula Big Sky paid a hefty price Friday night.
With his team clinging to a touchdown lead at halftime, Missoula Sentinel's football coach dialed up an onside kick to start the second half. The Spartans recovered, scored quickly and then scored again 5 minutes later en route to a 35-7 rivalry win at Missoula County Stadium.
It wasn't just the trickery that keyed fourth-ranked Sentinel's fifth win in six games. But the onside kick marked the beginning of the end for the scrappy, upset-minded Eagles (1-5).
"We just thought we needed a little jump start and it was well-executed by our kicker and kids," Oliver said. "You see some stuff on film and want to exploit it."
Big Sky coach Matt Johnson figured the onside might be coming.
"I debated on putting my hands team out there, but you kind of hate doing that sometimes, too," he said.
"Kudos they get their onside, but I thought defensively we played great. We got banged up right off the bat and were scrambling. But for not having a lot of depth, the kids did great."
The only score of the first half came on TJ Rausch's highlight-reel touchdown catch on a 17-yard pass from Dayton Bay with 59 ticks left in the first half. Rausch bobbled the ball briefly but was able to get both feet down before momentum carried him out of bounds.
After opening the third period with its successful onside kick, Sentinel marched 49 yards for a touchdown. Backup sophomore quarterback Zac Crews set up the score with a 33-yard run to the 1-yard line. Jaxon Lee did the rest and then added a 5-yard TD scamper with 5:55 left in the third as the Spartans built a 21-0 lead.
"I like how we responded in the second half," said Bay, who completed 21 of 26 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. "It's a big game. We knew it was going to be super physical.
"We respect Big Sky a lot and they have really good players. But we were super focused this week."
Big Sky's offense started to click late in the third quarter. Draven Lincoln connected on a 38-yard pass to Ben Maehl to give the Eagles their initial first down. Jett Rebish later capitalized on a 13-yard touchdown run.
Sentinel answered with a clock-milking drive that was capped by running back Lee with his 3-yard burst for a touchdown. Crews later added an insurance touchdown on a 7-yard pass by Bay.
"Just a lot of moxie by Dayton tonight after throwing two early picks," Oliver said. "We knew we might struggle early. That's how crosstown seems to go.
"It came down to execution and trusting our kids to make plays — Dayton along with a lot of other guys. I thought we were wearing them down a little bit and Jaxon (Lee) is learning to run north-south."
Lee finished with 146 yards rushing on 36 carries. Rausch led the Spartans' receiver corps with eight catches for 92 yards. Maehl had four catches for 51 yards to lead Big Sky.
"It's a crosstown game, so any time you can run the ball the way we did and our defense played lights out ...," Oliver noted. "When you can get that done you're getting better."