Helena now 7-0 after thrilling 28-24 win over Briarwood

Published 10:40 pm Friday, October 6, 2023

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

HELENA – With 6:23 to play in the third quarter, the Helena Huskies took over at their own 10-yard line in a 21-21 game with the Briarwood Lions and first place in the region on the line on Friday, Oct. 6.

In front of the home crowd, the Huskies didn’t shy away from the Lions’ daunting and physical defense, pounding big run after big run from running back Jordan Washington, quarterback Carson Acker and running back Dom Santiago.

Helena pounded their way 90 yards down the field, eventually punching in a 1-yard touchdown run Santiago to make it 28-21 as the first four seconds of the final quarter ticked off the clock.

Briarwood did end up making a field goal shortly after and had chances to win late, but a Nate Thomason interception in the final 1:30 of the game ultimately put away a 28-24 win for the Huskies, who improved to 7-0 overall and 4-0 in region play.

“Those are the bright spots,” head coach Richie Busby said after a game in which the team turned it over four times. “Our team knows how to win from behind and they know how to finish. That’s what’s important. For me, as the head coach, I want to look at all of the other stuff, but they did what they had to do, including that 90-yard drive at a crucial moment.”

With the win, the Huskies now sit atop the region standings by themselves with two region games remaining, also putting them a win from a home playoff game in the first round of the playoffs.

Busby, while proud of his team after for finding a way to win, also highlighted some needed improvements after a wild game that featured a combined eight turnovers, one blocked punts for each team and a missed field goal for each.

A wild first half from the two teams was highlighted by defensive plays despite 35 combined points between the two.

A blocked punt for each team, a fumble for each team, an interception from each team and a missed field goal from each led to a back-and-forth battle and a tight start to the game.

Helena opened the game with the ball, but was quickly forced to punt, which Briarwood came unblocked off the end and blocked to grab good field position on drive one.

The Lions didn’t even have to bring out quarterback Josh Thompson on the drive, as they eventually got a fourth-and-goal touchdown run from the run off the legs of running back Cooper Higgins on the direct snap under center.

Briarwood then forced another punt to get the ball back, but after two first downs, the Lions fumbled the ball and Helena took over at the BCS 19.

The Huskies were also able to capitalize on their good field position and turn the turnover into a 24-yard touchdown pass from Acker to Washington on a screen pass to make it 7-7.

The Lions then had their own punt blocked on the ensuing drive, which led to Helena taking its lone lead of the opening half.

The Huskies converted a big third down during the ensuing drive on a pass from Acker to Hunter Hale, which eventually set up a 3-yard touchdown run from Washington for his second score of the night and a 14-7 lead.

On the next Briarwood drive, a Helena interception gave the ball right back to the Huskies, who went on a strong drive.

After converting one fourth down due to a pass interference, the Briarwood defense forced three consecutive negative plays and forced a long field goal attempt the Helena missed.

Briarwood took advantage quickly. A play after a pass interference, Thompson found Ben McNulty for a wide open 65-yard touchdown pass on a busted coverage that evened the score at 14-14 with 6:40 to play in the half.

The Lions then intercepted a ball that was returned deep into Helena territory, but they ultimately missed a field goal of their own.

With Helena getting the ball back with 4:25 left in the half, the Huskies tried to put together a physical drive to take the lead, but another turnover became costly.

Out of the wildcat, a bobbled ball was eventually recovered by Grey Reebals, who picked it up and sprinted 75 yards to the end zone for a scoop-and-score that made it 21-14 Lions with 31 seconds left in the half, ultimately giving them the lead at the break.

But the chaos didn’t stop there.

Two plays into Briarwood’s opening drive of the second half, the Lions fumbled it for yet another turnover.

Helena took over at the Lions’ 49-yard line and turned to Washington, who had all but a few of the 49 yards on a powerful drive that ended with 3-yard touchdown run to even the score at 21-21 three minutes into the half.

Then came the big swing in momentum.

Already confident, Helena’s defense forced a punt near midfield that got the ball back in the hands of the offense.

Pinned at their own 10-yard line, the Huskies converted one third down on an 8-yard run from Acker, then got a big third down run from Washington before Santiago picked up a big gain and a facemask.

Washington then had runs of 9 yards and 14 yards to get Helena down to the 1-yard line before Santiago capped off a crucial drive.

Briarwood, however, wasn’t ready to roll over despite the 14 unanswered points and a defense that was on the field for the majority of the third quarter.

The Lions came back out and hit a big third-and-10 pass from Thompson to McNulty for 46 yards and then another for 18 yards.

They ultimately had to settle for a field goal, but the kick from Garrett Heinemann was good to make it 28-24 with 9:10 left.

From there, however, Briarwood missed opportunities.

After forcing a three-and-out, the Lions got down to the Helena 15-yard line before turning it over on downs with the first of two passes in the clutch that were batted down at the goal line.

Then, with the Huskies driving to put the game away, the Briarwood defense forced one last turnover on a fumble that was recovered by Reebals.

The Lions took over at their own 30 trailing by four with 3:05 left.

They moved the ball down field, converting a fourth-and-5 on a 25-yard pass to Sawyer Click and then moved 18 yards closer one play later on another pass to Click.

Down to the 19, facing third-and-7, Briarwood drew up the perfect play on a halfback pass, but the ball just went over the diving receiver and fell incomplete.

A play later, the fourth-down pass was deflected just short of the goal line and tipped into the hands of Thomason for the game-winning interception.

““Our kids know how to win, and they don’t panic. They usually do what it takes to win,” Busby said. “We talked about, before the game, just sticking together. There were going to be some adverse moments because that is a good football team. It’s hard to run the football on them and that’s what we do. They proved they were good up front, but we did enough to win.”

Ahead of the bye week, Busby knew how important the win was despite the mistakes at times.

“It’s always nice going into a bye week with a good taste in your mouth,” Busby said. “Even though we have to clean some things up, winning going into a bye week makes that week better. We have to get some rest, get some guys back in there and go take care of business against Calera and then we will have a home playoff game if we win that one.”

Washington had another big night to lead Helena, surpassing 200 yards yet again with 205 yards on 39 carries, finishing with two touchdowns on the ground and the 24-yard touchdown reception. Santiago added the Huskies’ other touchdown.

Thomason had the game-winning interception and recovered a fumble defensively for the Huskies.

For Briarwood, the Lions are now 3-3 overall and 2-1 in the region with games left against Calera, Benjamin Russell and Homewood to close out region play as they hope to chase down a playoff spot.

Thompson led the Lions with 225 passing yards on 10-of-22 passing and a touchdown, while McNulty finished with 110 yards receiving as his top target. Click added 60 yards on several big receptions down the stretch.