BHS Football v. Big Sky (copy)

Bozeman defensive back Logan Pailthorpe takes down Missoula Big Sky's Colter Janacaro during the Hawks' first home game on Friday at Van Winkle Stadium.

On a soggy field, in a sloppy game, it was only fitting one final mistake capped an evening filled with them.

Missoula Big Sky’s Everett Fred caught a pass from quarterback Draven Lincoln and immediately turned up field. He avoided the defender who was covering him. He side-stepped the other Bozeman players around him. Fred suddenly found himself in open space.

“We took a really bad angle in the secondary I thought,” Hawks head coach Levi Wesche said. “Just needed to rally to the ball and force him out.”

But that never happened.

Seventy-five yards later, Fred crossed the goal line and celebrated the game-winning score. The Eagles erased the Hawks’ comeback. They responded to Bozeman’s response. They quieted the Van Winkle Stadium crowd and capped a 21-18 victory Friday.

In their home opener, the Hawks’ offense slowed early. Bozeman turned the ball over on its first two drives. The Hawks allowed two scores on punting miscues. They eventually settled in and took the lead in the closing minutes, but their reign only lasted 54 seconds.

For a team that developed a reputation last year as excellent in late-game situations, the opposite proved true Friday. Bozeman dropped to 1-1 and suffered its first regular season loss since 2017.

BHS Football v. Big Sky (copy)

Bozeman defensive back Reece Stanish grabs Missoula Big Sky’s Colter Janacaro on Friday at Van Winkle Stadium.

“Late-game scenarios, we’re not as crisp as we should be. We need to work on that more obviously,” Wesche said.

“I’ll take this one on me. I didn’t put them in the greatest position to win, and we’re going to go back to the drawing board and make sure everything works next week.”

The Hawks’ first two drives ended early as Asher Croy fumbled and Jake D’Agostino threw an interception. Both players found a rhythm later on, but Bozeman couldn’t close out the win.

For the second straight week, Croy took 20-plus carries and this time finished with more than 100 yards on the ground. D’Agostino put the Hawks in position to win by throwing a second-quarter touchdown pass and orchestrating what initially seemed to be the game-winning drive in the fourth.

“If we would have made those three two-point conversions, we’d have won,” Croy said. “If we would have scored when we had it down on the 5. Just a lot of missed opportunities.”

BHS Football v. Big Sky (copy)

Bozeman defensive lineman Asher Croy runs to help take down Big Sky's Everett Fred during the Hawks' first home game on Friday at Van Winkle Stadium.

Despite the miscues, Bozeman remained in contention throughout. It wasn’t until nine seconds left that the Hawks ran out of chances.

“I thought our kids fought. They didn’t give up until the very end, and I’m proud of their effort,” Wesche said, “but we really got to find a way to get to execute better.”

With eight minutes left, Carter Ash caught a punt at his own 10-yard line, found space on the perimeter and weaved through the Eagles’ coverage team. He beat Big Sky’s last defender at midfield and brought Bozeman within two points. But the two-point conversion failed again.

Six minutes later, Croy capped a 52-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. He set up his own score by picking up 31 yards a few plays before. To reach the end zone, he outraced a Big Sky defender to the pylon. The Hawks led by four and just needed to hang on in the final 129 seconds.

“Felt like we had it,” Croy said.

Even after Fred’s game-winning touchdown with a minute and three seconds left, Bozeman had one final chance. The Hawks moved the ball to the Eagles’ 34-yard line and called timeout facing fourth and 1.

BHS Football v. Big Sky (copy)

Bozeman quarterback Jake D'Agostino sends a pass during the Hawks' first home game against Missoula Big Sky on Friday at Van Winkle Stadium.

The student section chanted, “I believe that we will win.” Fans said, “This is it,” to each other. D’Agostino tossed a pass over the middle, but it fell incomplete. The intended receiver lied flat on the muddy grass.

After the teams shook hands, Big Sky’s players sprinted to the end zone where they huddled up. They screamed, “Let’s go,” and jumped up and down. They deserved to celebrate. They proved more capable of taking advantage of their opponent’s miscues.

“We got a little too careless,” Croy said. “Until the clock’s done, there’s always a chance. We just can’t give up a big play when there’s that little time left.”

A cruel lesson Bozeman has no choice but to learn the hard way.

Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.

Paul Schwedelson is a sports writer for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.