LOCKWOOD — It wasn't always pretty throughout Saturday afternoon's Class A state semifinal football game, but Billings Central found a way. The Rams defeated Miles City, 17-10, to advance to their second Class A state title game in the past three years.
"We knew right away this team is never going to quit. They didn't perform like they wanted to a couple weeks ago. Everything went our way. They're a bunch of winners over there. They compete, they know how to win. They're well-coached, well-prepared," Billings Central head coach Jim Stanton said of Miles City. "We knew it was going to come down to a possession or two at the end. Not a bit surprised. Lot of warrior mentality over there. Our kids stepped up and made plays when they had to."
Billings Central marched right down the field on the game's opening possession before Derek Damjanovich plunged in from 6 yards out to put the Rams up 7-0. It felt as if it could be a repeat of the Oct. 16 meeting between the two teams that saw Central blank Miles City 42-0, but the Cowboys had different plans this time around.
Carson Hunter, one of the most prolific passers in Class A history, connected with Damian Leidholt on third-and-goal for a 12-yard scoring toss on the first play of the second quarter, as Leidholt just broke the plane before losing possession of the ball.
Then the game turned into a slugfest. Camden Capser drilled a 35-yard field goal to give Central a 10-7 lead at halftime, which held through the third quarter, as both sides traded punts and struggled to sustain drives. But the fourth quarter provided the fireworks that were missing during large chunks of the game.
A 57-yard pass from Hunter to Leidholt put the Cowboys into the red zone, but they couldn't punch it into the end zone to grab the lead. Instead, Jackson Whicker buried a 23-yard field goal to knot things up at 10 with 6:58 to play. Junior Brackenridge took the ensuing kickoff back 49 yards and set the Rams up in Miles City territory. The Rams went to their bread and butter, staying on the ground behind their dominant offensive line. Marcus Wittman punched it in on a 2-yard quarterback sneak to give Central a 17-10 lead with 3:33 to play.
"(Offensive lineman JaQuawhann Booth) is a kid that's really matured. He works hard. He's a force and I'm glad he's on our side. We'll run the ball behind him as much as we can," Stanton said. "(Miles City) was really rolling the dice there, bringing a lot of heat, lot of pressure. Just stunting every gap they could. We just felt like we didn't need to turn the ball over there."
"We can't go in thinking that our five is not better than their five. We're going in every game thinking our five is better than their five," Booth said of the Central offensive line. "We're getting a push. We're getting three yards. We don't care. We're going to go in and pound it in."
Miles City needed to mount a touchdown drive to try and force overtime, but Central put a quick stop to that. Hunter was intercepted by Thomas Hubbard on Miles City's first play of the drive, allowing the Rams to ice the game on the ground.
"No question about it, our defense has been spot on," Stanton said. "Coach (Wayne) Berry has done a great job with our defense. We were on (Saturday). They have a pretty good quarterback, knows how to play the game. It's a scary situation and our defense really rallied."
"Thomas Hubbard is a ball magnet. I don't know how he does it, but he always finds the ball. Such a clutch play from a really good player. Just awesome," Wittman said.
Wittman finished the game 8-of-13 passing for 61 yards. He added 94 yards and his game-winning score on 22 carries. Damjanovich had 48 rushing yards and a score on 11 carries.
Hunter was 12 for 19 for 145 yards and one touchdown and one interception. He added 39 rushing yards on 12 carries. Leidholt had four receptions for 84 yards, a touchdown and a fumble recovery.
Billings Central will see a familiar opponent in next weekend's state championship, as the Rams face off with rival Laurel. Central defeated Laurel 28-14 back on Sept. 25.
"I got a chance to be a part of the state championship team when I was a sophomore, so this is very important to me. But these are my guys and these are the guys I want to stand behind. I want to get it done with them, too," Booth said.