Billings Outlaws, playing in the comfy confines of the Sports Plex, advance to Champions Indoor Football semifinals

BILLINGS — It almost felt like a routine practice on Saturday for the Billings Outlaws.

Except for this time when the Outlaws arrived at the Sports Plex, they weren’t there to work on their timing or work on new plays or schemes. In this contest, it was win or go home for the year.

On Saturday, the Outlaws (8-3) were playing a first-round Champions Indoor Football playoff game at their normal practice facility, hosting the Wyoming Mustangs.

Joshua Best put on a highlight-reel-worthy show with clutch catches and plays, the defenders wearing blue and black rose to the occasion several times, and Jamario Benson had another solid game at quarterback as the Outlaws topped the Wyoming Mustangs 49-40 on Saturday.

“Practice, that’s for sure,” said Best of how it felt during the game. “Practicing what we did all week.”

And now, the Outlaws are on to the semifinals where they’ll play at the Salina (Kansas) Liberty (7-3) on June 18. The Mustangs finish the season with a record of 3-8.

Benson believes the Outlaws have what it takes to beat Salina and then go on to the title game.

“We’re going to go win a championship,” he said.

Normally the Outlaws play their home games at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark, but concerts were scheduled for the Metra on Saturday and Sunday.

So, the Outlaws turned to the much smaller, but cozy, Sports Plex. The game could have possibly been in Gillette, Wyoming, but the Outlaws ownership felt it was important to play the playoff game at home.

Playing in the same building that a former indoor football team also nicknamed the Billings Outlaws won four playoff games — including the championship — on their way to a 2010 Indoor Football League title because the Metra was damaged by a tornado that season, this new Outlaws team also was victorious.

“It felt normal, like practice,” said Benson of playing at the facility. “We played pretty good.”

It was the third time Billings beat Wyoming this year. The Outlaws prevailed over the Mustangs 47-29 in the regular-season finale at the Metra, and also topped Wyoming 45-29 in Gillette on April 30.

“It feels good. We have been dealing with adversity all year,” said Benson. “We did what we had to do. They came out and played hard. It’s hard to beat a team three times. They played good and didn’t lay down.”

The game, which was tied 14-14 after the first period, was close throughout.

Trailing 35-28 at the end of the third quarter, Wyoming continued a drive in the final stanza that it had started with 3:12 remaining in the third quarter after forcing a turnover on downs. With 12:24 left in regulation Tabyus Taylor scored on a five-yard run to bring Wyoming within one point. However, the conversion kick was blocked by Billings.

With the Wyoming kickoff hitting the net — the ceiling is lower at the Sports Plex than Metra — Billings started its following drive at the 25-yard line. On the first play, Benson found Best for six yards. Two plays later the duo connected on a 17-yard score with 9:32 remaining. After the PAT by kicker Jimmy Kazalski, the Outlaws led 42-34.

Overall, Benson and Best connected on two touchdowns as the duo also hooked up for a 16-yard score that coupled with the kick by Kazalski tied the contest at 14-14 with 4:26 left in the first quarter.

“My quarterback played a great game,” said Best. “He found me when he needed to.”

Wyoming answered after Benson and Best hooked up for their second touchdown to give Billings the 42-34 lead early in the fourth.

Eric Caldwell threw a 14-yard touchdown to Rashad Ridley. However, the conversion kick by Erick Ruiz failed and Billings was up 42-40 with 3:16 remaining in regulation.

On the ensuing Billings drive, after the Billings offense was penalized on the very first play, Benson once again found Best, this time for completions of 8 and 18 yards sandwiched around an incompletion.

At first and 10 from the 15, DNerius Antoine scored on a 15-yard run with 53.7 seconds left. After Kazalski made the conversion kick Billings led 49-40.

Five plays later Caldwell was intercepted by Billy Eakins in the end zone with 10.7 seconds left to seal the victory.

On fourth and goal, Rodrick Jarrett also had an interception for the Outlaws to end the first half.

Billings had two big scoring plays in the second quarter that helped the Outlaws take the momentum in that frame.

The first was when Benson found Garry Brown for a 43-yard score with 7:41 on the clock in the second that coupled with Kazalski’s point-after gave Billings a 21-14 lead.

Wyoming answered by putting together a seven-play drive that culminated with a 21-yard touchdown pass from Caldwell to Ridley with 53.7 seconds remaining in the half. After the PAT kick by Ruiz tied the score at 21-21, the most electrifying play of the game occurred.

Best returned the kickoff 45 yards for a touchdown and a 28-21 Billings lead with 45.4 seconds before halftime.

Best said it was his first kickoff return for a TD this year.

“On kick returns I’ve been back there a majority of the year and I hadn’t returned one. It was payoff,” he said. “I just said to myself I’ve got to go score.”

Troy Evans Jr. scored twice for the Outlaws. He had a 21-yard run in the first quarter for Billings’ first score and added a one-yard TD run at 11:57 of the third.

Billings’ semifinal opponent, the Liberty, are coached by Heron O’Neal, who led that 2010 Outlaws team to the title. Overall, O’Neal led Billings to three league titles while coaching the first version of the Outlaws from 2006-10.

Salina was the CIF runner-up in 2021 and 2019. The 2020 campaign was wiped out because of COVID-19.

Now the Outlaws begin a week of preparation to face the Liberty.

“We have to focus a little bit more and have a little more chemistry,” said Best, adding the key to success against Salina will be “discipline and focus.”

NOTES: There was only one set of field goal posts hanging from the ceiling, so all offensive possessions started with the team with the ball driving toward the south end of the facility. … Early in the second quarter, Wyoming had a chance at a field goal from 24 yards but the attempt failed.

Outlaws 49, Mustangs 40
Wyoming;14;7;7;12;-;40

Billings;14;14;7;14;-;49

First Quarter
Mustangs: Eric Caldwell 40 pass to Rashad Ridley (Erick Ruz kick) 11:41

Outlaws: Troy Evans Jr. 21 run (Jimmy Kazalski kick) 9:52

Mustangs: Tabyus Taylor 15 run (Ruiz kick) 7:22

Outlaws: Jamario Benson 16 pass to Joshua best (Kazalski kick) 4:26

Second Quarter
Outlaws: Benson 43 pass to Garry Brown (Kazalski kick) 7:41

Mustangs: Caldwell 21 pass to Ridley (Ruiz kick) :53.7

Outlaws: Best 45 kickoff return (Kazalski kick) :45.4

Third Quarter
Outlaws: Evans 1 run (Kazalski kick) 11:57

Mustangs: Caldwell 11 pass to Ridley (Ruiz kick) 6:34

Fourth Quarter
Mustangs: Taylor 5 run (kick blocked) 12:01

Outlaws: Benson 17 pass to Best (Kazalski kick) 9:32

Wyoming: Caldwell 14 pass to Ridley (kick failed) 3:16

Outlaws: DNerius Antoine 15 run (Kazalski kick) :53.7.