A week after Helena Capital broke the Flathead Braves’ six-game win streak with a dominating 65-27 victory, the Braves enter the playoffs facing an equally, and some would say more, formidable opponent in Billings West.
West, the No. 2 seed, finished the regular season with a 9-1 record, its only loss coming to undefeated Capital 22-21 on Sept. 26. In that game, West blew a 21-0 lead. Since 1997, the Golden Bears have won three state championships and been runner-up twice, compiling a 90-24 overall record.
The Braves travel to Billings West on Friday for the first round of the Class AA playoffs.
Flathead head coach Russell McCarvel said ball control and clock management will be key on offense to slow the explosive Bears, who utilize two effective quarterbacks and a solid running game. McCarvel noted that West won the state track championship last year and a substantial percentage of those athletes are on the football roster.
“They’re big, fast and physical,” McCarvel said. “They’re a very good team.”
The Braves wrapped up the regular season with a 6-4 record, tied with Missoula Big Sky and Great Falls High. But through the tiebreaker system, they wound up with the seventh seed. Big Sky is No. 6 and Great Falls, following a surprising 36-35 victory over cross-town rival and No. 3 C.M. Russell, is the fifth seed.
Big Sky faces CMR in the first round while Great Falls plays at Helena High. Rounding out the eight-team field is lowest-seeded Billings Skyview taking on Helena Capital, the two-time defending state champion. All first-round games are on Friday, Nov. 7 and Saturday, Nov. 8.
The last time Flathead played Billings West was in the 2006 state semifinals, when the Bears won 28-7.
Offensively, Flathead and West both average more than 30 points per game, among the leaders in the state. But defense is where the Golden Bears truly grit their teeth. The Bears gave up only 8.9 points per game this season, by far the best in the state. Their average margin of victory, 24 points per game, is second behind Capital.
The Braves will rely on senior quarterback Brock Osweiler to find holes in West’s stingy defense. Osweiler, who has committed to play for Arizona State University next year, led the state in passing yards, touchdowns, total offense and was among the league leaders in rushing.
For the season, Osweiler accounted for 40 touchdowns – 27 passing and 13 rushing – to give him an average of four per game, including a stint during Flathead’s six-game winning streak in which he scored 30. His 27 passing touchdowns tied the school record he set last year.
Though Osweiler’s numbers are impressive, the key to the Braves’s winning streak was an improved and consistent team effort. Running back Bryce Stacy stepped up his game during the streak to give Flathead a solid one-two punch with Osweiler on the ground. Senior Travis Andrus led a talented receiving crew with 10 touchdowns. On defense, the Braves came up with stops when they needed to.
In the playoff opener, Stacy and all other Flathead runners will have to pick their spots, which are few and far between with West. Until Skyview racked up 212 yards on the ground in West’s final regular season game last week, the Bears had allowed only 98 yards rushing per game.
By contrast, Flathead gave up more than 200 per outing. West’s star running back Eli Swain averaged more than 100 yards per game and scored 17 touchdowns.
Much of the game will be decided, as with any physical Class AA match-up, at the line of scrimmage. McCarvel said the Bears are big and powerful up front on both the offensive and defensive lines. But Flathead’s lines, led by Oregon State recruit Tyler Thomas, aren’t pushovers either.
“We feel we have a good offensive and defensive line as well, so that will be a key match-up in the game,” McCarvel said.
After opening up the season with three straight losses to CMR, Helena and Big Sky, the Braves rattled off six straight victories, including a big win over Great Falls. Heading into the final game of the year against Capital with a 6-3 record, the Braves could have ended up anywhere between the fourth and eighth seed in this year’s highly competitive Class AA field. The Capital loss dropped them from fourth to seventh.
Flathead hasn’t won a state championship since 1970. The last time the Braves reached the title game was in 2000. That year, led by running back Lex Hilliard, the Braves beat West in the semifinals before losing to Capital in the championship game.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.