By Bill Foley
Nov. 11 is a date that Montana Tech fans have had circled on their calendar for weeks, and not just because it is Veterans Day.
That is the day Southern Oregon comes to town to take on the Orediggers it what is a potential Frontier Conference championship football game on the Bob Green Field.
No. 8 Southern Oregon is 5-0, and No. 5 Montana Tech, the two-time defending Frontier Conference champion, is 4-0. They are the only undefeated teams left in the conference.
As the Frontier Conference approaches the midway point of the season, however, the league is still far from a two-team race.
Rocky Mountain College and Montana Western still have a thing or two to say before the league title is handed out.
Rocky is 3-2 in conference and 3-3 overall, while Western sits at 2-2 and 2-3. Despite a couple of tough losses, both teams are still very much in the mix.
Under second-year coach Jason Patrino, the Battlin’ Bears have clearly improved by great lengths. That was evident as the Bears fell just short of upsetting Southern Oregon in a 24-23 loss Saturday in Ashland.
The heartbreaking loss came after the Bears traveled more than 1,000 miles from Billings to play on a field on which the Raiders are 15-4 on since 2014.
Drew Korf, a freshman from Boise, replaced junior Jacob Bakken at quarterback in the loss. He completed 13 of 18 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns.
The quarterback change came two weeks after Bakken and the Bears nearly erased a 34-7 lead in a 34-28 home loss to Montana Tech.
To show how much the Bears have improved, the Bears lost 48-12 and 62-10 to the Orediggers in 2016.
Western, which lost 52-28 to Southern Oregon last month in Dillon, heads to Ashland on Oct. 28.
Rocky gets another shot at Montana Tech on the same day in Butte. The Orediggers, of course, head to Dillon this week to take on the Bulldogs.
Tech also has a home game with MSU-Northern and a trip to the College of Idaho before playing Southern Oregon on the last day of the regular season.
When Jed Fike transferred from Dickinson State to Montana Tech in January, the Orediggers didn’t send out a press release.
Oredigger head coach Chuck Morrell generally keeps such transfers fairly quiet because he doesn’t want to come across as gloating about another coach’s loss. When Quinn McQueary transferred to Tech from Montana State three years ago, the Tech coach had no comment.
Fike, though, has done plenty of speaking on the field for the Orediggers.
Through four games, the Harrison native who played his high school ball in Whitehall has 643 yards on 86 carries. That is an average of 7.5 yards per carry.
Fike has ran for five touchdowns and also provided McQueary with a weapon in the passing game. Fike has seven receptions for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
This success shouldn’t be a surprise for Oredigger fans who watched Fike burn the Oredigger defense for a pair of long touchdowns — something no other player did last season — in Dickinson State’s playoff loss in Butte.
Nobody expected Fike — or anybody, for that matter — to fill the shoes of Montana Tech superstar Nolan Saraceni, and the new Oredigger running back has a long way to go before doing that.
Four games in, though, Fike has more than cushioned the blow Tech fans expected with the graduation of the two-time Frontier Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
The 2017 season couldn’t have started any worse for Western quarterback J.D. Ferris.
The former Beaverhead County High School star suffered an injury in the first quarter of Western’s first game, a 16-14 Aug. 26 home win over the College of Idaho.
Fifth-year senior Bennett Gibson took over and has held his own, to say the least. The Mount Vernon, Washington, product has had a hand in 11 touchdowns in the last three Western games.
That includes seven touchdown passes and four TD runs.
Before the Bulldogs took last week off, Gibson played his best game of his college career in Havre. Gibson completed 19 of 27 passes for 333 yards and three touchdowns as the Bulldogs beat MSU-Northern 61-7 at Blue Pony Stadium.
Gibson also ran for a pair of scores in the win.
Ferris, by the way, received a medical redshirt and will have two more years of eligibility for the Bulldogs.
With is 21 total touchdowns in four games and two NAIA National Offensive Player of the Week awards, McQueary, Tech’s senior quarterback, is clearly on track to win the Frontier Conference Offensive Player of the Year Award.
Southern Oregon senior quarterback Tanner Trosin, however, might have something to say about that.
Trosin has completed 63 percent of his passes for 1,737 yards and 11 touchdowns through five games. He has thrown just two interceptions. Trosin has also ran for 141 yards and five scores.
McQueary could possibly have three Frontier Conference Offensive Player of the Week awards this season instead of two.
After he passed for 356 yards and three touchdowns — and ran for another score — in Tech’s season-opening 45-28 win over Carroll, McQueary was not nominated for the award.
Morrell said an Oredigger goof resulted in no Tech players being nominated for weekly awards that week. Trosin took home the honor instead.
Montana Western redshirt freshman linebacker Kyle Schulte has been a factor for the Bulldog defense.
The 2016 Butte Central graduate has appeared in four games for the Bulldogs. He ranks eighth on the team with 21 total tackles. That includes 13 assisted tackles, eight solo take downs and one tackle for a loss.
Schulte’s brother Connor, now a junior, has been seeing time at fullback, tight end and special teams for the Bulldogs. The older Schulte moved from the offensive line during the offseason.
Bringing up the rear
Unless the wild Frontier gets extraordinarily wild over the next six weeks, the playoffs are most likely out of reach for Carroll College, Eastern Oregon, College of Idaho and Northern. Each team has at least three losses.
That Eastern Oregon is basically out of the mix shows how tough the Frontier Conference is year after year. The Mountaineers, remember, came within a minute of qualifying for the national championship game last season.
Those four teams will still have plenty of chances to play the role of the spoiler.
Those teams, though, will be beating up on each other this Saturday. Northern plays at Eastern Oregon, while the College of Idaho travels to Helena to take on the Saints.
Southern Oregon and Rocky have the week off.
Western will have to beat the Orediggers Saturday at Vigilante Field. Otherwise, the Bulldogs will join the ranks of the spoilers and say goodbye to their playoff aspirations.