Whitefish and Polson will be in unfamiliar positions when the Class A football playoffs kick off today.
Whitefish (7-2) hosts Butte Central (5-4) in its first home playoff game since 2003, while Polson (5-3) travels to Hamilton (6-3) for its first opening round road game in three years.
Polson hosted quarterfinal games each of the past two years as the Northwestern A conference champion, but the Pirates are conference’s third seed this season.
Whitefish finished the regular season with a four-game winning streak to claim Northwestern A’s second seed while Columbia Falls went unbeaten to earn the conference title and a first-round playoff bye.
Something has to give when Butte Central’s high-powered offense (30.4 points per game) matches up against Whitefish’s stout defense (12.2 points allowed per game). Butte Central quarterback Danny Peoples is the Southwestern A’s second-leading passer (202.7 yards per game) while Butte Central running back Wyatt Kingston leads the conference with 107.2 rushing yards per game.
“They’re a great offense,” Whitefish coach Chad Ross said of Butte Central. “I think we have some pretty good secondary guys, so I think we match up pretty well. We’ve got (David Rizzolo) and (Sean) Foley, so we’ve got speed on the edge. I think we can match up with them if we do our jobs and not try to do somebody else’s. Make the plays that come to us. And we have to get pressure on (Peoples). I think our secondary can cover them if he doesn’t have all day.”
Ross said defense has been key to Whitefish’s success all season. In addition to its athletic secondary, the Bulldogs have veteran linebackers in Gage Smith and Calub Thilmony who direct traffic in the front seven.
Whitefish’s offense has been impressive as well. Dual-threat quarterback Luke May averages 59.8 rushing yards and 131.1 passing yards while Foley is Northwestern A’s third-leading receiver with 55.4 yards per game.
“We’re pretty balanced so that helps us,” Ross said.
“Foley has the most catches (26), but after that we’ve got five or six guys with 8-10. I think that’s an advantage to us because you can take one guy out and we can still maybe hurt you somewhere else.”
Polson faces a dangerous opponent in Hamilton, which nearly knocked off Columbia Falls in a nonconference matchup that came down to the final play. Hamilton quarterback Josh Bauder led the Southwestern A conference with 218.9 passing yards per game and the Broncs finished third in their conference in scoring.
“They have a good quarterback, two very good receivers and you definitely have to try to shut down, as much as you can, the passing game,” Polson coach Scott Wilson said. “They do run the ball, but they’re passing game is what they really want to do.”
Polson should be ready for a pass-heavy offense after playing Columbia Falls in the regular season finale. The Pirates lost 42-5 and gave up 287 yards through the air, but Wilson hopes his team learned from that experience.
“I think that we can utilize the experience and tweak a couple of things that we maybe could’ve done better,” he said. “It definitely was to our advantage to have that game the week before. Our league this year had several good quarterbacks in Whitefish, Libby and Columbia Falls, so I think that’s going to help us also.”
The challenge for Polson’s offense will be re-gaining the balance it lost against Columbia Falls. The Pirates were one of the most balanced offenses in Class A during the regular season, averaging 132.4 yards through the air and 203.6 on the ground. Quarterback Andrew Weltz is a dual-threat who has run for 79.3 yards per game and Cedrick Smith one of Northwestern A’s more productive receivers with 45.3 receiving yards per game, but the Pirates couldn’t get their passing game going against Columbia Falls.
“That was probably the first time all year that we didn’t have pretty good balance,” Wilson said. “Columbia Falls did a nice job of shutting down our passing game.
“(Hamilton) gives up a little bit more on the ground than they do through the air, so hopefully we can take advantage of that and try to establish the run game. That’s where the pass game also has to be helping. Because we’ve been more successful running the ball, I kind of expect that they’ll bring an extra body in to try to stop that. We have to be able to throw the ball consistently to help our run game, to loosen up their defense a little bit.”
Both games kick off at 1 p.m.