BILLINGS -- The general consensus before the Class AA championship football game between No. 3 Helena High and defending state champion and top-ranked Billings Senior was that Helena would have to play their best game in order to beat the undefeated Broncs.
And although the underdog Bengals played very well against a powerful Senior squad at Daylis Stadium on Friday night -- HHS overcame a 14-0 first quarter deficit to close to within 14-12 at halftime -- in the end they came up short and had to settle for the second-place trophy a hard-fought battle.
Billings quarterback Nolan Askelson scored the game's final touchdown on a 5-yard run with 5:14 left in the third quarter, putting his team up 21-12. And that's how it would end. It was the closest score the unbeaten Broncs were involved in this year, while being held to 16 points below their season average of 37.
The red-and-white's defense produced five turnovers, four in the first half, to help keep the Bengals in the game. On offense, three of the five times HHS reached the red zone -- twice inside the 10-yard line -- they were stopped by a stiff BS defense.
"One thing about Senior that doesn't get mentioned enough is their defense; they always do a good job defensively," said Helena coach Tony Arntson, whose Bengals now own four State runner-up trophies. "I'm just really proud of how hard the guys battled, after the first two series, we played very well.
"Coach Scotty Evans (defensive coordinator) had a great defensive plan, but (offensively) we didn't make the plays when we needed to, and we beat ourselves with penalties."
HHS was also hurt by the lack of a kicking game.
Among the Bengals turnovers were fumble recoveries by Keanan Horne, Conner Nash and Alex Johnson, and an interception by Zach Spiroff. A few of their more crucial defensive plays were a sack and a blocked punt by Nash, a defensed pass and tackle for loss by Jack Kanta, and several big stops by Caeden Suero.
Helena was down by two TDs heading into the second quarter, before crossing the goal line twice before halftime.
Their first score was a 13-yard strike from quarterback Kaleb Winterburn to Zach Huth deep in the right corner of the end zone with 5:14 left in the first half. The touchdown was set up by a fourth-and-third pass to Ray Trudeau to Senior's 28-yard line, and a Winterburn keeper to the 15.
Then on the Bengals' next possession, Winterburn hit running back Kyle Tabbert with a 35-yard bomb to Senior's 15, although a penalty brought it back 10 yards to the 25. Next, Winterburn ran for 13 yards to the 12, before firing a scoring strike to Tabbert with 40 seconds remaining before the break.
Both 2-point conversion attempts were unsuccessful.
Helena (9-3) would not score again, as the Broncs (13-0) went on to cement their 26th consecutive victory, which ties Capital High's 26 straight from 1999-2001 for the second longest win streak in AA history. The Bruins hold the record of 33 wins in a row.
"We had a great season, the things we achieved this year were a huge accomplishment," Arntson said. "I'm really proud of these seniors, of how hard they played, how much they love the game, and how classy they act on and off the field."