By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsemail@example.com
It's no secret that the Havre High football team is playing one of the most aggressive non-conference schedules in Class A football this year.
Tonight's tilt with the Billings Central Rams is perhaps the most anticipated match-ups of the four non-conference games on the Ponies' schedule.
The game between Havre and Billings Central is also an early season battle between the two top-rated teams in the state. The first Class A power poll, which came out Wednesday, has Havre ranked number one and the Rams right behind them at number two.
"This is a big game for us because they (Rams) are a very solid football team," said HHS head coach Troy Purcell. "We have known for a while that this game would be a very tough one."
Both teams come into tonight's highly anticipated game with a perfect 1-0 start to their season. Billings Central opened its season last week with a solid 21-3 win over Butte Central.
Meanwhile, the Ponies shrugged off a sluggish start against Glendive to prevail in their season opener 21-6. Havre trailed the Red Devils 6-0 going into the fourth quarter before exploding for three touchdowns on three straight possessions.
Senior wideout Marc Mariani scored all three of the Ponies TDs in the season opening win.
The slow start against Glendive was a combination of Havre's lack of execution and focus in the first half and a solid defensive effort from the Red Devils, according to Purcell. He admitted that Havre can't afford the same kind of first half this week against the upstart Rams.
"I think the game against Glendive was a real wake-up call for our team," Purcell said. "We will have to execute much better at the start of the game.
"Practice has gone really well this week," he added. "The focus and intensity this week has been at a completely different level than it was last week. The kids are really determined right now."
That same intensity and focus will have to carry over from practice to tonight's game if Havre is going to stand up to the Rams experienced winged -T offense.
Billings Central went 7-3 last season and fell to eventual state champion Dillon 22-20 in the opening round of the playoffs. The near miss against Dillon left many people predicting that 2004 would likely be the year of the Rams.
Billings Central returns a host of experienced starters. The Rams possess one of the most talented offensive backfields in Class A football led by senior quarterback Brice Burton.
Burton is a speedster who is also an accurate passer and is very experienced in leading the Rams complicated offense. They also return all-state running back in senior Mac Dye (6-1, 185), who rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2003 and is a serious threat to defenses across the state.
"Billings Central is a very dangerous team offensively," Purcell said. "They have a great backfield and a pair of great players on the wings. They only threw the ball three times against Butte Central, but their quarterback is a very good passer so they are really balanced if they have to be.
"For our defense, this will be a situation where we can't create rushing lanes for them," Purcell added. "If our interior linemen don't hold up, and they get lanes to run through, we could be in for a long night."
As good as the Rams are offensively, they are also very stingy defensively. Many of Billings Central's skill players start on defense and the Rams also have solid size on the line. But Purcell isn't changing his offensive game plan.
"We still intend on running our offense the way we always do," Purcell said. "We put in a couple of new formations, so we have the option of going to the power running game if we need to. But we're still going to try to spread the field on them and try to get the ball downfield as much as we can."
Not only will Havre have to overcome Billings Central's talented offense and defense if they are going to get to 2-0 on the young season, but they will have to do it while fighting through some injuries.
Offensive lineman Bill Zuelke will miss tonight's game due to a concussion. Senior tailback Scott Robinson is nursing a back injury and quarterback Gary Wagner missed some practice time this week due to sore shins.
"This game is going to be a real battle," Purcell said. "We are a little banged up and we're playing a very solid football team. But the kids are focused and we have prepared hard this week. Now it is time to go out on the field and execute what we have been preparing for all week."
Tonight's game between Havre and Billings Central is slated to kick off at 7 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium. The game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM.