The Helena High defense stops the run better than anyone in AA football, at least through six games. C.M. Russell, meanwhile, is running the ball better than anyone, making tonight’s marquee matchup a test of strengths.
On paper, the No. 2 Bengals have the advantage with Montana’s stingiest defense (233.8 yards and 13.5 points allowed per game) and the state’s third-ranked offense (375.2 yards and 34.7 points produced per game), while No. 1 C.M. Russell ranks seventh defensively (374.3 yards, 26.0 points) and fourth offensively (384.0 yards, 33.7 points).
And against common opponents — two so far — Helena also performed better, although both games against Glacier and Skyview were at home for the Bengals and one the road for the Rustlers. Helena defeated Glacier 23-17 on Sept. 7 and knocked off Skyview 31-7 on Sept. 21, while CMR topped Glacier 24-21 on Aug. 31 and defeated Skyview 34-27 last week.
Like CMR, Skyview features a run heavy offense, something that didn’t seem to bother Helena a whole lot as the Bengals limited the state’s second-ranked ground game to a measly 41 yards on 33 carries.
“It’s a whole different challenge. It’s a whole different style of running game, Helena coach Tony Arntson said. “They’re going to move their linemen around to take advantage of their athleticism, and their running back and quarterback are both very good. Our kids have to do our thing — play disciplined, play physical, and we’ve got to tackle well. Both their running back and quarterback are big kids. ... We’ve also got to make sure we don’t go to sleep on the passing game — they’re really effective there as well. It’s certainly a big challenge that we’re looking forward to.”
The Rustlers get most of their offense from running back Hunter Thomsen, who is second in the state with 137 carries for 967 yards — and average of 7.1 per carry — and four touchdowns. Quarterback Josh Horner has rushed for 449 yards with 15 touchdowns and has passed for another 523 yards with three scores.
While CMR leads the state in rushing, Helena is more unpredictable with near-perfect balance on offense. The Bengals have run for 1,143 yards — led by senior running back Zack Winfield’s 106 carries for 513 yards and 12 touchdowns — and have passed for 1,108 yards — led by senior quarterback Dawson Reardon, who is 90 for 164 for 1,087 yards with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. Junior Troy Arntson (34 receptions, 449 yards, three touchdowns) and senior Sam Hilger (24-262, three touchdowns), meanwhile, have been the top targets in the passing game for the Bengals. Winfield also has three receiving touchdowns.
“They seem to be playing better every week defensively,” Arntson said. “We have to be balanced, make sure we stay balanced in the run and pass games — do our same thing.”
In the state playoffs last year, Thomsen rushed for 90 yards and a late touchdown on 19 carries against Helena, but the Bengals prevailed 27-14 to advance to the semfinals. The stakes aren’t quite that high this time around, but the winner will certainly gain some confidence and momentum heading into the season’s final three games.
“It’s going to come down to the trenches on both sides of the ball, like it always does,” Arntson said. “It’ll be a good old fashioned AA football game — the team that wins the battle on both sides will come out on top. Obviously, in good games like this, special teams will become huge. The more times you can make them drive 75 or 80 yards, the better off you are. That’ll be huge. ... It should be a great one.”