HELENA -- All season long, people have theorized that the Western AA was stronger than the Eastern AA. Friday night, Helena Capital and Helena High will get the chance to prove it.
Both the Bruins and the Bengals will be on the road for the quarterfinals of the Class AA football playoffs and each will take on 9-1 opponents from the East.
The Bengals, who finished as the fourth-place team in the Western Division, will head to Bozeman, while the Bruins, who are 8-2, will pay a visit to Billings West, the defending state champions.
“Everything about them jumps out on film,” Capital head coach Kyle Mihelish said of Billings West. “They are big and physical. Offensively, they have Demarcus Carr and Connor Ryan and the Ryan kid has over 1,000 yards receiving. Their quarterback is much improved. Defensively, They are big and they run to the football.”
West quarterback Josh Erbacher actually leads all of Class AA in passing yards with 2,434 or an average of 270 yards per game. He’s also completing 67 percent of his throws and is tied with Tommy Mellott of Butte High with 24 touchdown passes.
Trying to contain the Golden Bears offense will be critical, however, the Bruins will need to be just about perfect when they have the football too. And they mean to do more than score points.
“We need to hold onto the ball,” Bruins wideout Cy Miller said. “Put more pressure on their offense and try to keep the ball away from them too.”
Long drives that result in points will be ideal for the Bruins, who will need to play complimentary football if they want to leave Billings with an upset win.
And one thing that will help in that effort is an underrated ground game that features Kadyn Craigle, who is second in Class AA with 1,102 rushing yards to go along with 10 touchdowns.
Noah Braden is another threat in the backfield. He’s ninth in the state with 732 rushing yards. Capital also features quarterback Bridger Grovom, who threw three touchdown passes last week, as well as Parker Johnston who has 846 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. Miller and Quinn Belcher are also threats in the passing game.
“We have to be able to move the ball offensively,” Mihelish said. “We have to create some turnovers on defense and we can’t flounder on special teams.”
Billings West may have plenty of firepower, but Mihelish likes his team too.
“It’s great going into this game with the guys we have,” Mihelish said. “They are a great group of young men. They have worked hard and I want nothing but the best for these guys (Friday) night. As long as we come out and play hard, we will be OK.”
Helena High, like Capital, will also be on the road as the 6-4 Bengals try to upset Bozeman, the top team coming out of the Eastern AA.
A big reason for the Hawks success this season has been the exceptional play of running back Asher Croy who has averaged 147 rushing yards per game and leads Class AA with 1,331 yards. He also has 15 touchdowns and has gotten 6.8 yards per attempt.
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Yet, earlier in the season, Helena High matched up with Missoula Sentinel’s prolific back Jaxon Lee and held him to 42 yards on 23 attempts.
“I like our matchup,” Helena High head coach Scott Evans said. “I think it’s going to be a physical football game and a situation where we can do what we do best with our front seven. We can do some things defensively that we like doing.”
The Bengals will attempt to put Bozeman quarterback Jake D’Agostino in a position to have to make plays, which could be a challenge against the Bengals defense after he completed 57 percent of his throws during the season. He averaged 132 yards passing as well as 13 touchdowns.
"They are a talented team and have a great offense," Bengals defensive back Ben Swanson said. "But I don't think that they have seen a defense like ours."
Bozeman has a star on the offensive side of the ball in Croy, yet it has one on defense too, in defensive end Kenneth Eiden, who leads Class AA in sacks with 10.5.
Keeping him from wrecking things will be critical for the Bengals offense, however, Helena High also boasts a fierce pass rush featuring Keyshawn Newby (8 sacks), Booker Perkins (7.5 sacks) and Zachary Evans (7 sacks), who each rank among the top five in AA in sacks.
“We want them to have to get deep in their playbook,” Evans said. “That’s our job defensively. If we can get them to use their fourth or fifth option that’s our philosophy and we aren’t really going to change that.”
Offensively, Helena High is still figuring out who will start at quarterback. Hayden Ferguson got the call last week and tossed two touchdown passes in relief of Kaden Huot, who was injured against Helena Capital.
But Huot returned to practice this week and Evans said both quarterbacks could be available Friday night.
“He has looked a lot better this week,” Evans said. “We have to see how he does and we will continue to evaluate him but we feel good about both our quarterbacks.”
Wide receiver Kyler Tesch, who has 565 yards receiving this season, which leads Helena High, should also be back from an injury, giving the Bengals their top wideout to go along with Raef Miller and Ayden Fasbender who caught a touchdown last week.
Evans team also comes into this one battle tested, having played three of the top five teams in the state. The Bengals lost to No. 1 Butte by 11, yet their other three losses were all by seven points or less and with plenty of playoff wins the past three years, they feel right at home.
“To be the best you have to beat the best,” Evans said. “And this is one more challenge for us. That’s what playoff football is about. We like to say we play for November around here and that’s exactly what we are doing right now.”
Kickoff for both games is set for 7 p.m.