MISSOULA — John Hinchey hauled in the pass, fell into the end zone and let out a celebratory yell as he jumped up to meet teammates who were flocking to greet him.
One of those teammates was quarterback Taylor Morton, who pumped his fist and clapped his hands after his second score of the game.
But approximately 25 yards away, Flathead head coach Kyle Samson wasn’t nearly as overjoyed as his offensive playmakers.
The fourth-year coach had a stoic look on his face as he simply pointed to the yellow flag laying on the artificial turf around the Braves’ line of scrimmage.
As was the case far too often for Flathead on Thursday night in a 33-20 loss to Big Sky at Missoula County Stadium, the explosive play was neutralized. This penalty, more costly than any of the Braves’ other nine, took points off the board. The momentum that had carried Flathead (3-3) down the field and into the end zone to tie the game was no more.
“The team’s hyped. The team’s in a great mood. And then you start getting pushed back,” Hinchey said.
“It’s just tough. It’s tough to keep the guys hyped up. It’s tough to keep the guys doing what they’re supposed to be doing. The penalties hurt us, both yardage and, obviously, hurt our morale, too.”
Facing quarterback Levi Janacaro and the potent Big Sky (5-2) offense, Flathead had little room for error as it was.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Janacaro ran wild — as he has for most of the Class AA season — on Flathead’s defense, rushing for 266 yards and three scores and passing for another two touchdowns.
The senior signal-caller accounted for 20 points by himself and had a hand in another 12.
“I don’t think we were at our best tonight, but hats off to them,” Samson said. “Give that kid (Janacaro) credit. He’s a heck of a football player and a tough, tough runner.”
It didn’t take long for Flathead to see firsthand how dangerous Janacaro could be.
The Braves opened with a three-and-out, gave the ball to the Big Sky offense and watched as Janacaro floated a 22-yard touchdown pass to Rylan Wilcox over the heads of 11 helpless defenders.
But after being punched in the mouth early, Flathead landed a counter.
Morton marched the offense down the field on an 11-play, 78-yard drive to tie the game.
“It really shows our togetherness,” Hinchey said. “We’re on the sidelines telling each other we’re not going to give up. We’re going to go back and we’re going to respond. That’s what we did.”
Save for a 44-yard touchdown pass to Ben Meahl that gave Big Sky a 13-7 halftime lead, Flathead managed to keep Janacaro in check, relatively speaking, for the rest of the first half. He entered the locker room with just 12 rushing yards on seven carries.
The Braves’ defense forced one of three Big Sky punts on the night to open the second half, and Morton once again piloted a scoring drive.
Or so he and the offense thought.
After reaching the Eagles’ 13-yard line, four penalties in the span of just over a minute not only negated Hinchey’s game-tying touchdown grab, but pushed Flathead all the way back out of field-goal range.
“That was a big turning point,” Samson said. “We just had a string of penalties in a row. That was a big play for us. We’ve got to be able to bounce back from that. I thought our kids, they kept fighting. They never gave up for one second.”
Janacaro then caught fire.
He broke free for a 39-yard scamper on the first play of the ensuing Big Sky drive and capped it six plays later with a 9-yard run that gave the Eagles their first two-possession lead of the game.
Flathead put together a last-gasp drive at the end of the fourth quarter, scoring with just more than two minutes left to play on a 27-yard Morton pass to Anthony Jones.
The Braves failed to recover the onside kick, however, and Janacaro — fittingly — iced the game on the next play with a 48-yard touchdown run, an exclamation point on a 300-plus-yard night.
Flathead — now back to .500 — has an extra day to prepare before it returns home, where the Braves are 3-0 this season, next Friday night to face CMR in yet another game with playoff implications.
Samson and his staff will use it to attempt to clean up the sloppier aspects of Thursday night’s defeat, mistakes that the head coach believes were a big part of why his team came up empty.
“We kind of hurt ourselves,” Samson said. “(Big Sky) had some big plays, and we had some penalties that hurt us. I thought our kids played super hard.
“They gave 110 percent, and we’re still right in the mix of everything. We’ve just got to bounce back and be ready to go next week.”
Flathead 7 0 6 7 — 20
Big Sky 7 6 6 14 — 33
BS — Rylan Wilcox 22 pass from Levi Janacaro (Reese Gehrig kick)
F — Taylor Morton 3 run (Alex Coulter kick)
BS — Ben Meahl 44 pass from Janacaro (kick failed)
BS — Janacaro 9 run (pass failed)
F — Austin Demars 6 run (kick blocked)
BS — Janacaro 47 run (Janacaro run)
F — Anthony Jones 27 pass from Morton (Coulter kick)
BS — Janacaro 48 run (kick failed)
First Downs 24 18
Rushes-Yards 35-150 35-335
Passing Yards 243 87
Comp-Att-Int 16-32-1 3-9-0
Total Offense 67-393 44-422
Punts-Avg. 4-33 3-37
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 0-0
Penalties-Yards 10-73 12-100
RUSHING — Flathead, Jonathan Baker 9-48, Blake Counts 14-34, Taylor Morton 5-27, Jaden MacNeil 4-26, Austin Demars 1-6, Anthony Jones 1-5, Trae Vasquez 1-4. Big Sky, Levi Janacaro 24-266, Kadin Lahti 9-63, Tyler Flink 2-6.
PASSING — Flathead, Taylor Morton 16-32-1-243. Big Sky, Levi Janacaro 3-9-0-87.
RECEIVING — Flathead, Austin Demars 6-107, Jonathan Baker 3-62, Anthony Jones 1-27, Blake Counts 2-21, Bobby Lowry 2-11, Trae Vasquez 1-9, Logan Siblerud 1-6. Big Sky, Ben Meahl 1-44, Rylan Wilcox 1-22, Kadin Lahti 1-21.