MISSOULA — Whitefish football coach Chad Ross knew his team’s season could hinge on its game against Columbia Falls.
The Bulldogs, then 0-2, were facing a 2-0 Wildcats team, and a third loss three games into a nine-game regular season would not only put them far outside the playoff picture. It could also be a demoralizing start that could have ripple effects throughout the year for however long they were allowed to play amid the coronavirus pandemic.
By the time the clock hit all zeroes that night Sept. 11, Whitefish emerged with a 21-7 victory that restored the team’s confidence and kicked off a four-game winning streak that has the Bulldogs back in the playoff picture with three weeks to play.
“Columbia Falls was a huge win for us,” Ross said. “It was a turning point because everybody was questioning us, and we were questioning ourselves: ‘Are we actually good?’”
Whitefish has outscored its opponents 182-70, including 165-35 during its four-game win streak. Aside from the win over Columbia Falls, which is now 4-2 after a loss to undefeated Hamilton, the three other teams the Bulldogs beat are 3-13, so it isn’t the strongest competition. But stacking wins is helping a team that returned just three all-conference players from last year’s 6-4 playoff-qualifying group find its footing.
That confidence is especially important at quarterback, where Fynn Ridgeway is back for his second season starting but is still only a sophomore with just 14 varsity games under his belt. He’s slowly finding comfort in the pocket while growing into his 5-foot-11, 165-pound frame after playing at 135 pounds last year.
Ridgeway is fourth in Class A with 162 passing yards per game, completing 59.6% of his passes. He’s thrown six touchdowns and nine interceptions but has five touchdowns and one pick in the past two games after having just one touchdown and eight picks in the first four. He’s had all five of his rushing scores in the past three games.
Ridgeway is doing that work in a shotgun wing-T offense and behind an offensive line that has four new starters among the five linemen and one blocking tight end the team primarily uses. He’s helped by having running back Jack Alton, who is averaging 77.5 rushing yards per game.
“His comfort in the pocket has grown, even from week one and week two,” Ross said. “He got hit and wanted to get rid of the ball even though he had protection but didn’t know to step up or roll out. He’s done a good job of being patient, taking what the defense gives him and trusts his offensive line, reads pocket pressure and makes downfield decisions.”
Whitefish’s stout defense has exceled with all-conference players such as defensive end Camren Ross, cornerback Jaxsen Schlauch and safety Bodie Smith. Schlauch has three of the 10 interceptions by the Bulldogs, who’ve outgained their opponents 2,222 yards to 1,453.
Even in their two losses, the Bulldogs held Libby (5-1) and Polson (3-3) well below their season scoring averages. Not counting the game against Whitefish, the Loggers are averaging 40.2 points and were held to 21 by Whitefish, and the Pirates are averaging 29.6 but were limited to 14 by the Bulldogs.
While the defense held up, the Bulldogs were hampered by turnovers in their two losses, committing nine total and five in the red zone while losing 21-10 to Libby and 14-7 to Polson.
“I think defensively our guys have done a really good job of buying in and doing our job and responsibility,” Ross said. “Early in the season, we were just wanting to make plays. We worked really well together against Columbia Falls.”
He added: “We’ve gotten a little bit better very week. We’re a bend-but-don’t-break defense. When we break, we lose games.”
Whitefish will try not to break when it travels to top-ranked Hamilton (6-0) at 7 p.m. Friday, if the game is played following reports of Hamilton closing the high school Thursday because of positive COVID-19 cases. Ross has been impressed with Hamilton quarterback Tyson Rostad making the throws he needs to make on “a dominant running team,” and he knows that “if we can’t stop the running game, they’ll tear us apart.”
“We’re hoping we don’t beat ourselves, don’t give up the big play and are competitive,” Ross said. “I think we can play with Hamilton, but we’ll find out.”
It’s the biggest test so far for the Bulldogs, who are in a three-way tie for the fourth and final playoff spot out of the Western A with Columbia Falls and Frenchtown. They go from that game to facing winless Stevensville and closing the regular season against No. 4 Dillon.
It isn’t the easiest three-game stretch to close the year, and they’ll have to earn their way into the playoffs. But at least they’re in the playoff picture after overcoming two losses in which they were a handful of plays away from winning and being undefeated right now in this unique year.
“If you said we’d play seven games, I’d say no way,” Ross said in regard to the coronavirus. “Football is the one sense of continuity and normalcy. We’ve said, ‘Hey, we get to play football.’ They’ve bought into that. Win or lose, they’ve come together with the circumstances around them.”