History still belongs to the Bruins.
But Friday night belonged to the Bengals.
In the sixth crosstown meeting in playoff history, on a mucky Vigilante Stadium field, Helena’s quick-strike offense capitalized on Capital’s miscues and ran away with a 30-7 win in the State AA semifinals.
Capital still leads the postseason series, 4-2, but it is the Bengals that advance to face undefeated Billings Senior, the defending State champs, in next week’s championship game.
“This is a dream come true,” Helena High quarterback Kaleb Winterburn said. “Senior year, Crosstown, semifinal … I mean, this is honestly what I was thinking about in sixth grade. This is the best thing ever. It is.”
Winterburn’s offense was stymied early, and all momentum belonged to the Bruin defense.
The Bruin offense then got in on the action, grinding down the field and putting the game’s first points on the board on a fourth-and-long screen pass from Bridger Grovom to Alec McVey-Touchette. The running back rubbed off a defender and then powered his way into the end zone from 22 yards out with 2:05 to play in the first quarter.
The elation on the visitors’ side of the stadium was short-lived.
Nine seconds later, Helena High’s Logan Brown was in the end zone himself, after a 75-yard punt return. Winterburn punched it in for a two-point conversion and just like that, a seven-point deficit was a one-point lead.
Capital’s defense, though, continued to make life tough for Winterburn, and looked to have made another stop late in the second quarter on a third-and-15 incompletion. But in the play’s aftermath, Capital’s Seth Schneider was whistled for a personal foul.
The Bengals were in the end zone for a second time minutes later, Ray Trudeau pulling in a 15-yard pass from Winterburn. Kyle Tabbert then grabbed a two-point toss from his QB, and Helena extended the lead.
That third-down penalty signaled the beginning of the end.
Suddenly, Capital was thrown off, and Helena was finding a rhythm.
“That was the game-sealer right there,” Winterburn said.
Capital coach Kyle Mihelish didn’t disagree.
“I thought we started off well in the first half, when we go down and score,” he said. And then a big momentum-changer there is when we give up the big kickoff return and they go up 8-7. And then we hold them on third-and-15 and we get a personal foul, and then they go down and score.
“In playoff football, you can’t make mistakes like that. It’s an emotional sport, it’s an emotional game, but you’ve gotta keep your emotions in check. And we struggled with that. It kind of snowballed on us.”
It did, indeed.
Capital botched the snap on a punt deep in Bruin territory and, one play later, Tabbert was hauling in a 12-yard touchdown pass. The two-point try failed, but Helena’s lead was 22-7 with 1:39 to play in the first half.
“It really just came down to the fact that we just decided we were going to go out there and be the more physical team,” Helena receiver/cornerback Zach Spiroff said. “Our coaches preached that all week in practice. The more physical team was gonna win this game.”
The first-half deficit was a hole far too deep for the Bruins in the second half, especially once the flags started once again flying.
Personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct littered the second half. By game’s end, a pair of Bruins had been ejected with multiple 15-yarders.
The team nearly hit double digits in the number of personal fouls, and racked up a whopping 170 yards in penalties.
“It’s certainly not the face of who we are,” Mihelish said. “They’re good young men. Obviously, there’s some frustration, but, yeah, it’s too bad we have to end on that.”
Helena finally closed the door on any hopes of a late comeback with a one-yard touchdown plunge by Winterburn with 8:15 to play, the two-point conversion throw resulting in the final margin of 30-7.
“One thing I don’t like about football is that when football’s over, it’s over. I mean, you can’t wean yourself off football,” Mihelish said. “Obviously, you talk about the penalties, you talk about the situations, you talk about future, you talk about offseason weight training, you talk about gear check-in … it’s a hard conversation to have.
“I had to preface my (postgame) talk with (the fact) that this is something we really don’t want to talk about, but it’s something we have to talk about. And football comes to an end. It’s taken away from ya.”
For the Bengals, though, there’s still one more week.
One week to prepare for Senior.
The Broncs haven’t lost in two years, and in Week 2 manhandled Helena High, 43-19. But for now, at least for a night, they have some time to celebrate getting the program into the title game for the first time since 2010.
“This is crazy. It’s unbelievable to be in a spot like this,” Spiroff said. “The amount of work we put in all year, it just shows it pays off in times like these, when we can go out there and just run on all cylinders and get it done like this.”