BUTTE – The Butte High football team didn’t do itself any favors when it came to trying to knock off the only unbeaten team in Class AA.
Three first-half fumbles by the Bulldogs led to 14 Billings Senior points and the Broncs showcased the talents of Nolan Askelson and Gabe Sulser to pull away to a 41-22 win Friday night at Naranche Stadium.
Askelson threw for 133 yards and ran for 131, while Sulser, who has already committed himself to the Montana Grizzlies’ football program, picked up 147 yards on the ground and scored five of the Broncs’ touchdowns.
“They’re pretty talented,” Butte head coach Arie Grey said of the Senior tandem. “Gabe is pretty special with what he does with the ball in his hand and Askelson is really what keeps them going. The kid doesn’t come off the field. He’s pretty dang talented.”
The Broncs improved to 7-0 on the season, and have outscored their opponents by a 265-117 margin.
But their latest win wasn’t as easy as it looked.
Despite the Bulldogs’ three lost fumbles in the first half, the Bulldogs cut their 21-9 halftime deficit to just five points in the third quarter.
The Broncs were ready to extend their 12-point lead but Butte linebacker Carl Anderson blocked Jason Miller’s 25-yard field goal attempt to give the ball to the Bulldogs at their own 2-yard line.
Bo Mortenson got Butte into good field position with a 60-yard jaunt down the left sideline, setting up the Bulldogs at the Senior 38. Quarterback Tommy Mellott got the Bulldogs into the end zone two plays later when he connected with Josh Neil for a 37-yard touchdown pass.
The momentum didn’t last long.
Senior bounced right back with a 76-play drive that covered in five plays. Askelson picked up 18 of those yards on the ground and connected with Ben LaBeau for 33 more yards before hitting Sulser with a 15-yard touchdown pass.
“We cut it to 21-16 and we were in the game but we don’t get a stop there, which is what we need to do,” Grey said. “But we battled. We played hard.”
Askelson made a pest of himself on both sides of the ball with key stops on defense and a blocked PAT on Butte’s first touchdown.
He is aware of the pressures that comes with being a member of the lone unbeaten team in the conference and feels the Broncs need to reach another level to achieve their ultimate goal of taking the state crown this season.
“I think we absolutely can get better,” he said. “I played awful on offense (Friday). A big part of that was on me. We didn’t score as many as we could. I just think we weren’t prepared very well but we can only go up from here. We just have to keep getting better and better and scheming teams up well.”
The Broncs showed some signs of “getting better and better” beginning with their answer to Butte’s third-quarter score.
Sulser’s 15-yard touchdown reception, which pushed Senior’s lead back to 28-16, began a run of three touchdowns on three consecutive possessions.
Sulser followed up his 15-yard scoring catch with a 68-yard touchdown run and a 21-yard scoring run.
The Broncs relied on their ability to get to the outside and run loose down the sideline.
“We probably gave them a little too much respect and didn’t do our job as much,” Grey said. “They have some speed but we’ve got to spill them back inside. We were worried too much in diving instead of doing what we were supposed to do; get outside and let them bounce it back in.”
While it’s a lesson that will certainly be learned by the Bulldogs, who slipped to 2-5, Grey continued to insist that his team needs to cut down on turnovers.
The Broncs nabbed a pair of interceptions in addition to their three recovered fumbles.
“Offensively, we’ve got to do a good job of taking care of the ball,” Grey added. “When we take care of the ball, we’re going to be OK. But when you don’t take care of the ball, it’s hard to do things.”