There was a lot of hype leading up to the rematch between the Havre Blue Ponies and Miles City Cowboys, just like there always is when the two teams meet on the gridiron. And in the first round of the Class A football playoffs, the rematch that was nearly two months in the making did not disappoint.
After a 6-6 tie in week two of the regular season, neither the Central A Ponies nor Eastern A Cowboys had earned bragging rights on who was the better team in 2013. The Cowboys held a slight edge, seeing as how they had not lost to Ponies in nearly a decade, but on Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium in Havre, this longtime rivalry took a turn in the Ponies' favor.
The Ponies defeated the Cowboys 21-20 in a game that came down to the wire. The Ponies improved to 5-4 overall, advanced to the Class A quarterfinals and ended the Cowboys' season.
"More important than anything," Havre High head coach Jason Christenson said about ending the drought against the Cowboys. "This was just a good win for these kids and a good win for our seniors. It did answer a few questions I guess, but our kids just battled and earned this win. They kept fighting and it is just great that this group of kids was able to get a win over a really good Miles City team. Our kids did a fantastic job I think."
And Saturday's matchup wasn't the prettiest game by either team. But a strong second half by the Havre defense helped overcome a lot of adversity in the win, as the Cowboys scored 21 points in the first half, but were shut out completely in the second half.
There were a total of eight turnovers by both squads, including two lost fumbles and three thrown interceptions by the Ponies. But adding to the barrage of mistakes, there were also a total of 23 penalties by both teams, including 10 by the Ponies. But when it mattered most, the Blue Pony offense found a way to get rolling, overcoming a 21-7 deficit at the midway point. And making the comeback possible, the Blue Pony defense turned in what can probably be described as their best half of football all season long.
"Miles City came out and attacked us with some things that they hadn't shown," Christenson said. "So credit to them coming out and doing something different. They were picking on our weaknesses, but we went in and made some adjustments at half. The kids understood and bought into it, and went out and executed very well. That is what halftime is for, you make some adjustments and hope the kids execute. They did that, and did a great job."
Blue Pony quarterback Dane Warp also knew the defense carried the load and was grateful for their efforts.
"This was just a good moment for us as a team," Warp said. "We knew it was going to be a dogfight, and we knew they wanted this win just as bad as we did. Our defense was huge, our offense made more than too many mistakes and turnovers, but our defense really backed us up today and we have to credit them for this game today."
One of the bigger adjustments was how to deal with Miles City wide receiver Alec Haughian. He had a 25-yard scoring reception in the first quarter, and was on the receiving end of the majority of Herzog's passes, especially down field. But with Haughian in motion or lined up in a different spot nearly every play, it was tough to keep lockdown defensive back Thomas Gruber on him at all times without confusion. The Ponies used the break to make sure Gruber and the rest of the defense were on the same page concerneing who would take Haughian and when. Haughian, like the rest of the Cowboys did not score the rest of the game.
But the biggest stand by the Pony defense came on the final drive of the game. HHS led 21-20, but the Cowboys would get one final opportunity as they forced a Pony punt at the 4:07 mark. The punt was partially blocked and resulted in great field position for Miles City, taking over on their own 47-yard-line with no timeouts remaining. Giving up a score of any kind would mean a loss for the Ponies, but the defense stood strong.
After three straight running plays the Cowboys had to go to the passing game. On third down the Cowboys went backwards on a holding penalty, but would convert on a long fourth down pass from Herzog who was out for several plays due to a hard it. The 16-yard pass put the Cowboys on the 26-yard-line with 1:30 left to play. Another holding penalty followed by a Tyler Adams sack put Miles City in another long field situation. And with one minute left in regulation the Ponies forced a second down and 30, but two pass plays later, the Ponies were called for pass interference on fourth down. That penalty put the Cowboys on the 23 with six yards to go for a first down. Herzog found another open receiver at the 8-yard line and the Cowboys were forced to spike the ball after a fresh set of downs. Herzog then missed a receiver in the endzone, then went backwards on a false start.
The game came down to third-and-goal on the 13-yard line. The Pony blitz was on and Herzog was forced out of the pocket on a three-yard scramble. But with the time ticking away and with no timeouts, the ball was not set and the horn sounded for an HHS victory. The pressure by the Ponies' defense forced Herzog to run, a crucial mistake by the quarterback.
"All week we put pressure on our front seven to be disciplined and play assignment football," Christenson said. "They needed to stay low, use their hands, get off blocks, and go find the ball, and I think they did a nice job doing that.
"We made some mistakes in the first half that we shouldn't have," Gruber added. "But we went in the lockerroom and drew some things up and corrected it. Pretty much, we just came out and stopped them. I don't even know what to say, this is just unbelievable and a great feeling. To come out on top in these close games is the best feeling you can have."
The HHS defense allowed just 167 rushing yards on 40 carries, while Herzog completed 12 passes for another 192 yards. The Cowboys finished with a total of 359 yards.
But before the defense could save the day with an impressive final stand, the offense had to get rolling and find the endzone.
After a fumble on the opening kickoff, then a e Warp interception, the Cowboys quickly converted and went up 14-0 in the first quarter. But to start the second quarter, the Ponies capped off a 12-play drive with a one-yard rushing score by Parker Filius. Miles City also scored once in the second quarter to lead 21-7, but the Ponies scored two unanswered times in the second half to sneak ahead by one point.
In the comeback to the win, Kody Pribyl punched in another one-yard rushing score for the Ponies in the second quarter. But it was a 10-yard touchdown pass from Warp to Tristan Manuel with 8:17 left in the fourth quarter that proved to be the game-winner. Gunnar Aageson converted the extra point to give the Ponies the 21-20 lead.
Manuel finished the game with four catches for 54 yards, and three rushes for 25 yards.
"This was awesome," Manuel said. "We knew they (Cowboys) were pretty excited to come up here again, and that really got us going. But that was the greatest feeling in the world. We really pulled it together and our offensive line really did a fantastic job and gave our quarterback plenty of time. But I just lined up and didn't think about it. It didn't matter who caught the ball as long as somebody scored, and it came to me. I haven't had a receiving touchdown since our Whitefish game last season, so that was great."
Warp finished 23-for-32 for 354 yards, while Filius had 11 catches for 143 yards and nine carries for 76 yards. Gruber also finished with six catches for 102 yards, while Pribyl finished with once catch for 33, and seven carries for 33-yards. Nate Rismon also had one catch for 22 yards.
Now, an elated Blue Pony team gets to keep playing. After a dramatic first-round win, the Ponies' first in the playoffs since a 2011 win over Hamilton at Blue Pony Stadium, Havre moves on to the quarterfinals.
But an even tougher task awaits the Ponies this Saturday, when they face Northwestern A champ Columbia Falls. The Ponies and Wildcats will meet at 12 p.m. in Columbia Falls.
Bring on the
Blue Ponies 21, Miles City 20
Miles City 14 6 0 0 – 20
Havre 0 7 7 7 – 21
MC - Brett Keith 22 pass from Ben Herzog (Robert Hofer kick)
MC - Alec Haughian 25 pass from Ben Herzog (Robert Hofer kick)
HHS - Parker Filius 1 run (Gunner Aageson kick)
MC – Ben Herzog 3 run (kick failed)
Havre's Tristan Manuel, right, runs up field during Saturday's game at Blue Pony Stadium. Manuel caught the winning touchdown from Dane Warp in the fourth quarter.
HHS - Kody Pribyl 1 run (Gunnar Aageson kick),
HHS - Tristan Manuel 10 pass from Dane Warp (Gunnar Aageson kick)
Havre Individual Statistics
Passing – Dane Warp 23-32-353
Receiving – Parker Filius 11-143, Thomas Gruber 6-102, Nate Rismon 1-22, Tristan Manuel 4-54, Kody Pribyl 1-33
Rushing – Parker Filius 9-76, Tristan Manuel 3-25, Kody Pribyl 7-33.