By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsemail@example.com
Sometimes heavily hyped football games don't live up to all of the pregame commotion surrounding them.
That was not the case Friday night at Blue Pony Stadium as the No. 1 ranked Havre Blue Ponies edged the No. 2 ranked Billings Central Rams, 20-19, in a Class A nonconference showdown.
Unlike last week's season opener in which the Ponies had to come from behind in the second half against Glendive, it was Havre's defense that turned out to be the second-half hero against the Rams.
The Ponies held off a furious Billings Central fourth-quarter comeback that included a pair of Billings Central scores before Havre's defense was able to stop the Rams on the final possession of the contest.
"I was really proud of our kids for the way they held on at the end of the game," said HHS veteran head coach Troy Purcell. "(Billings Central) is a very solid football team and they did a great job of getting back in the game in the fourth quarter.
"But our kids showed a lot of character on that last drive and they were able to hold them off and win the football game."
The reason the Rams had to make the late charge in the final stanza was because the Ponies came out clicking in the first period.
After a couple of stalled drives by both teams, Havre struck first blood when senior quarterback Gary Wagner scrambled on a broken pass play and ended up running free for 48 yards to give the Ponies a 7-0 lead.
The Ponies then capitalized on a Billings Central turnover late in the period when Wagner hooked up with Coda Tchida for a 35-yard TD strike that upped the lead to 14-0.
Despite the early deficit, the Rams were not shaken. Billings Central was finally able to get on the board when shifty quarterback Bryce Burton turned a quarterback dive play into an 89-yard touchdown run that pulled his team to within seven points at 14-7.
Havre had a pair of opportunities to break the game wide open before half time, driving the ball deep into Ram territory. But a Wagner interception by Garrett Dye and a Craig Kallenberger fumble cost the Ponies precious points in the first half.
"We definitely had some chances to score more points throughout the game," Purcell said. "We made some mistakes and we didn't take care of the football like we needed to. But we still felt good about where we were at at half time."
Havre began the second half much like the first ended. The Ponies turned the ball over half way through the third period when Colby Mader fumbled the ball at mid-field. However, Billings Central couldn't do anything with the miscue. The Ponies took over on downs with 3:08 remaining in the quarter, and quickly added to their lead. Wagner hooked up with senior wideout Marc Mariani on a key third down conversion, and two plays later tailback Scott Robinson busted through the Ram defensive front and scampered 58 yards for a touchdown to give the Ponies a 20-7 lead.
"That was a key play in the game," Purcell said of Robinson's touchdown run. "Scott Robinson and Gary Wagner both carried the ball well tonight against a very good defensive team."
Down two scores, the Rams still wouldn't go away. They finally got their offense going behind Burton. On their ensuing possession, he carried the ball twice for runs of 18 yards and 45 yards to set up a first and goal situation on the Havre 3-yard line as the fourth quarter got under way. From there, fullback Mike Hodges plunged his way into the endzone.
However, the Ponies came up with a critical play as Mariani blocked the point-after-attempt. The block offset Havre's missed PAT earlier in the half.
The Rams still weren't done, breaking off two huge plays to get back in the game.
Burton ripped off a 25-yard run into Havre territory. On the next play, he connected with wide receiver Mike Heringer for a rare 43-yard passing touchdown.
Billings Central went for broke on the next play and attempted a two-point conversion that would have given them the lead. The Pony defense, however, stood tall and stopped the Burton keeper short of the goal line.
Billings Central still had one last gasp, getting the ball back with just over a minute to play. Burton's first three pass attempts were off the mark. Then, on a last ditch attempt, Burton was picked off by Tchida and the Ponies held on for the one-point win.
"I was really proud of how our defense played in the second half," Purcell said. "Their quarterback is an outstanding football player and he was tough to stop. Our kids showed a lot of heart and made some big defensive plays when we really needed them."
Despite four turnovers, Havre's offense rolled up more than 400 yards on the night.
Wagner completed 19 of 34 passes for 228 yards. He did some damage on the ground as well ,rushing for 116 yards and the opening touchdown.
Robinson carried the ball nine times for 89 yards. Mariani and Tchida both had big nights receiving. Tchida caught four balls for 92 yards and a touchdown to go along with his game ending pick. Mariani hauled in eight passes for 95 yards.
The Ponies also got a solid defensive outing from a pair of seniors. Defensive end Chad Seely had nine tackles, including five solos and a forced fumble. Linebacker Brett Michels led the way for the Ponies with 13 tackles including six solos.
"This was a good win for our football team," Purcell said. "We have some work to do, because we have another very tough opponent coming up this week."
That tough opponent Purcell mentioned is the Whitefish Bulldogs.
The Ponies will travel to Whitefish for the first time in three seasons on Saturday afternoon to renew the annual rivalry for the BNSF Trophy. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m in Whitefish on Saturday.
Billings Central 0 7 0 12 - 19
Havre 14 0 6 0 - 20
Havre - Gary Wagner 47 run (Wagner kick)
Havre - Coda Tchida 35 pass from Wagner (Wagner kick)
Billings Central - Bryce Burton 80 run (Ken Bland kick)
Havre - Scott Robinson 45 run (kick failed)
Billings Central - Mike Hodges 2 run (kick blocked)
Billings Central - Mike Heringer 43 pass from Burton (run failed).
Rushing - Gary Wagner 11-116, Scott Robinson 9-89.
Passing - Gary Wagner 19-34-228-1.
Receiving - Coda Tchida 4-92, Marc Mariani 8-95, Scott Robinson 5-41.