By Bill Foley
DILLON — Consider the world shocked.
Montana Western threw the Frontier Conference for a loop and put the NAIA on notice Saturday afternoon by upsetting No. 5 Montana Tech 42-35 in front of a ruckus crowd at a breezy Vigilante Field. (Stats)
Senior quarterback Bennett Gibson scored on a 5-yard run with 1 minute, 59 seconds left, and Sonny Oana picked off a pass to seal the improbable victory over the two-time defending Frontier Conference champions.
“It’s what we’ve been working on,” said Gibson, who had a hand in five touchdowns on the day. “We haven’t been able to put a full game together, and today we was the day we did it. They scored a lot of points, but they’re good.”
The win lifted the Bulldogs to 3-2 in the Frontier and 3-3 overall. It also keeps them very much in the Frontier Conference title race with 3-2 Rocky Mountain College, 5-0 Southern Oregon and now 4-1 Montana Tech.
“We really put it all together today,” Gibson said. “We didn’t play too low, we didn’t play too high. We just stayed level headed and got the win.”
(Story continues below photo gallery)
The game saw several huge momentum swings, with Western riding the latest to the win.
Kylar Prante scampered in for a 12-yard score to tie the game at 28 with 4:16 left in the game.
After the Bulldog defense forced a quick three and out, disaster struck for the Orediggers.
Under pressure from the Bulldogs, Derrick Holt’s punt was blocked by the back of one of his teammates, and the Bulldogs took over at the Tech 30-yard line.
Tech coach Chuck Morrell said he only briefly considered going for it on fourth and 2 from the Bulldog 33-yard line. Instead, he opted to punt into the wind.
“There was still another possession in the game at that point,” Morrell said. “It wasn’t late enough in the game for me to go for it on fourth down at that point.”
The Orediggers called their final timeout just before Gibson scored the go-ahead touchdown. After a touchback on the kickoff, the Orediggers stared into the wind and some really long odds.
Oana ended the Oredigger last-second hopes by going up high for a pick on the Western sideline. The interception was the third the Bulldogs stole from Tech senior quarterback Quinn McQueary.
All three picks — the other two by Zach Jannis and Tristan Clark — saw the Bulldogs make a great play on the ball.
“You don’t beat good teams by sitting and waiting for something to happen,” Western coach Ryan Nourse said. “You go and you make (stuff) happen. If you don’t, you lose.”
The biggest interception was Clark’s.
Clark, a Deer Lodge product who is the nephew of Butte High football coach Arie Grey, snagged a tipped pass and returned it 34 yards to set up Western’s first score.
It also completely flipped the momentum to the men in black.
The Orediggers, with the wind at their back, stormed out to a 14-0 lead when Jed Fike scored two of his four touchdowns.
Fike scored on an 11-yard run on Tech’s first possession. After an interception by Reid Siderius, Fike hauled in a 37-yard McQueary pass to cap the second Oredigger drive.
Tech looked poised for a three-score advantage when Clark got his mitts on the ball.
A few plays later, Gibson hit Walker McKitrick for a 15-yard score, the first of three Gibson touchdown passes, late in the first quarter.
When the Bulldogs got the wind at their back at the quarter change, they really got going.
Melvin Walser, a high school teammate of Gibson’s, made a leaping catch — getting one foot in bounds — to tie the score at 14 with 13:13 left in the second quarter.
Three minutes later, Gibson put the Bulldogs on top with a 1-yard run.
“It’s a game of momentum,” Morrell said. “I don’t think our guys relaxed. We know better than to relax against a quality team like these guys. They grabbed the momentum there for a good chunk.”
The Orediggers killed the momentum with a 21-play drive that took more than 9 minutes off the clock. Fike capped the drive with a 2-yard run to tie the game at 21 heading into halftime.
With the wind at their back to open the third quarter, the Orediggers were on the march again. This time, Janis jumped up in front of receiver Dion Williams for an interception at the Bulldog 3-yard line.
Western took at 28-21 with 9:22 left in the third quarter. Bennett rolled right, faked like he was going to run and hit running back Hunter Thomsen for an 11-yard score.
That touchdown came shortly after a nice leaping catch by Nate Simkins.
Tech answered when McQueary scored on a 3-yard run late in the third quarter. The quarterback, though, was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after jawing with a Bulldog defender following the score.
The penalty resulted in the point after touchdown try being moved back 15 yards, and the kick sailed left. That left the Orediggers trailing 28-27.
McQueary and the Orediggers made up for the goof with a 95-yard drive into the wind. Fike capped the march with a 12-yard score with 7:44 left.
McQueary hit Chris Kelly for the 2-point conversion and a 35-28 lead.
That was the end of the good news for the Orediggers, who are now bracing for a fall in the rankings.
“In the second half, we made far too many mistakes to win the game,” Morrell said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Gibson completed 22 of 38 passes for 369 yards. Thomsen ran for 117 yards on 22 carries. He also caught a team-high five passes for 39 yards.
Gibson used nine receivers, highlighted by Simkins’ four receptions for 116 yards. Walser caught four passes for 67 yards.
“It just took everybody today,” Gibson said. “That’s what’s about.”
Defensive lineman Carson Smith registered a team-high 16 tackles (10 solo) and got in on two sacks.
Butte Central graduate Kyle Schulte, a redshirt freshman, and Nate Masterson also got in on sacks for Western.
McQueary completed 30 of 42 passes for 302 yards, while Fike picked up 122 yards on 28 carries.
Williams caught 10 passes for 77 yards. Kelly and Sean Sullivan each caught five passes, Fike caught four and Chris Lachance grabbed three.
Nic Amestoy, who returned from a four-game suspension for violating team rules, registered a team-best 10 tackles. He also had Tech’s lone sack.
Nourse, who is in the second year of his second tenure at the helm of the Bulldogs, said Saturday’s win might be his biggest as a head coach.
“We were playing the No. 5 team in the country, and we haven’t played well except for one game this season,” Nourse said. “We had not met our expectations of ourselves. To do this today, that was big.
“I always felt that our guys believed they were good, but I don’t know if they ever thought they could be great,” Nourse said. “Hopefully today will be that step.”
The Bulldogs will head to the College of Idaho next week. The Orediggers will travel to Helena to take on Carroll College.
The Orediggers now have five games to climb back up the rankings, if they can. With Southern Oregon coming to town for the final game of the season, the Orediggers still control their destiny.
“We can decide where we’re going to go from here,” Morrell said. “We’ve been in this position the last two years. We wake up on Monday, we’re still going to be a ranked team. We still have an opportunity to win the conference. All that stuff is still out there for us, so we’re not going to panic.
“A sign of a veteran team is to not panic,” Morrell said. “We’ve got use it to drive us forward the rest of the year.”
The Orediggers overcame early-season losses to win the league title the last two years.
“It starts with me. I’ve got to own it,” Morrell said. “I didn’t do a good enough job, our coaches didn’t do a good enough job, and players didn’t do a good enough job.
“What we want to do is accept responsibility,” the coach added. “That’s the first thing we need to do. After that, we’ve got to sit on it all weekend, we’ve got to deal with it film on Monday, and we’ve got to use it to spring forward.”