By Bill Foley
One of the most difficult parts of being a college coach is watching seniors walk out the door.
That goes double — at least — for Montana Tech football coach Chuck Morrell.
Morrell, a hard-nosed, no-nonsense type of coach, gets emotional every year on Senior Day.
“My coaching buddies always give me a hard time about being Dick Vermeil,” an emotional Morrell said Saturday, referring to the Super Bowl champion coach known for breaking into tears. “You get so invested in the kids’ lives, and you care about them so much. You want the wins for you program, but really you want them for them.”
Morrell’s comments came after the Orediggers fell 24-10 to Frontier Conference champion Southern Oregon in a game that closed the book on the Oredigger careers for 14 seniors.
This group, Morrell pointed out, makes up a particularly important class because it helped the Orediggers rebound from a 1-9 season in 2014 to win back-to-back Frontier Conference titles in 2015 and 2016.
Before the game, Morrell greeted each of his seniors, who were accompanied by family members in the Senior Day ceremony. The seniors are Andre Brown, Brock Polley, Chris LaChance, Quinn McQueary, Reid Siderius, Sean Sullivan, Chris Kelly, Diovonni Brewer, Will Davey, Derrick Holt, Levi Dawes, Tyler Sanders, Jalen Whitley and Jack Hape.
“It’s just an incredible group of young men,” Morrell said of his senior class. “One thing that is lacking in our world today is the toughness and the grit and the passion to stick things out and to go through tough times. Our kids have that, and there’s not a lot of that out in the world today. It’s hard to walk away from guys who are mentally tough.”
Montana Tech will sit out the NAIA football playoffs for the first time since 2014.
You can point to several factors, including injuries and a brutally tough conference schedule, for the Orediggers missing the postseason. Perhaps the most glaring reason is the turnover margin.
The Orediggers closed the season with a minus nine giveaway-takeaway ration. Tech lost 11 fumbles and threw 12 interceptions. The Oredigger defense recovered seven fumbles and picked off seven passes.
Only the College of Idaho and 1-10 MSU-Northern were worse than the Orediggers at minus 10, and the Lights played one more game than the Orediggers.
Southern Oregon found its way on top of the league at 10-0. It is no coincidence that the Raiders also finished with a plus-16 turnover ratio.
Rocky Mountain College finished at plus six, while Montana Western and Carroll College finished at plus one. Eastern Oregon was minus one.
Last year, the Orediggers won the conference title and finished with a plus-seven turnover margin.
The Orediggers won the turnover battle in just two games this season, wins at Carroll and Rocky. Tech even lost the turnover battle in the Orediggers’ 93-19 win over Northern.
On Sept. 26, 2015, Montana Tech freshman receiver Dion Williams caught one pass for 41 yards in the Orediggers’ 29-21 home win over the College of Idaho.
That turned out to be only time the graduate of Vanden High School in Fairfield, California, touched the ball in a game all season.
Two years and two months later, and Williams is a bona fide Oredigger superstar.
Even though the Southern Oregon defense was clearly keyed in on Williams, the junior caught 10 passes for 126 yards on Saturday.
That gave Williams 77 catches for 1,004 yards and nine touchdowns on the season.
According to the school’s record book, Williams is just the third Oredigger to ever rack up more than 1,000 yards receiving.
He ranks only behind Lorenzo Snyder at 1,239 and Davis Almanza at 1,047. The big seasons Snyder and Almanza both came in 1997.
Williams’ 77 receptions broke the team record of 75 set by Zach Kinney in 2013.
Williams, who changed his jersey number from 13 to 81 before the season, caught 52 passes for 924 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
With 130 career receptions for 1,969 yards, Williams will enter his senior season chasing Almanza’s school records of 168 receptions for 2,431 yards.
Williams is just three receiving touchdowns shy of tying Almanza’s career Oredigger record of 20.
For a guy who wasn’t expected to play much, if at all, this season, Bennett Gibson put together quite the season for Montana Western.
Gibson, who was named NAIA Offensive Player of the Week after the Bulldogs’ Oct. 7 win over Montana Tech, passed for 3,185 yards and 20 touchdowns in 11 games. His passing yards total finished only behind Southern Oregon’s Tanner Trosin, while his TD total trailed only McQueary’s 23 and Trosin’s 22.
Gibson took over at quarterback for the Bulldogs when starter J.D. Ferris suffered a shoulder injury in Western’s season-opening win over the College of Idaho in Dillon.
In his final game in a Bulldog uniform, Gibson completed 22 of 35 passes for 469 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ overtime loss to Rocky. He was picked off twice.
Another Bulldog fell just short of a milestone. Senior running back Hunter Thomsen finished the season 25 yards shy of 1,000. That leaves Sam Rutherford as the only Bulldog to ever run for 1,000 yards.
Still, with 230 carries for 975 yards and five touchdowns, Thomsen, a former Great Falls Russell star, had a pretty solid senior campaign. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry.
Carroll College sophomore running back Major Ali closed the season in top form.
The Gig Harbor, Washington, native ended up 22 yards short of the 1,000 mark. Of his 978 yards, 352 came in the final two games. Ali ran for 176 yards in each of the last two games, against Carroll and Eastern Oregon.
That gave Ali, who scored nine touchdowns, five 100-yard games on the season. He also ran for 96 yards Oct. 28 against Northern.
Last season, Ali ran for 485 yards on 102 carries. This year, he did his damage on 198 carries, averaging 5.2 yards per rush.
The College of Idaho’s 45-22 win over Northern was the third straight win for the Coyotes.
That marks the first three-game winning streak since 1975. That stat is misleading since the Coyotes took more than three decades off from playing football.
The Coyotes, though, definitely closed the season on their best run since bringing back the football program in 2014.
Rocky Mountain College senior running back Jaden Olson scored touchdowns on his first and last plays in Frontier Conference games.
Olson scored on a 15-yard run to lift the Battlin’ Bears to a 48-42 win over Montana Western Saturday in Dillon.
As second-year Rocky coach Jason Petrino pointed out to The Billings Gazette, Olson also scored on his first play in a Frontier game, taking a swing pass for a touchdown against Southern Oregon.
Petrino, who wasn’t coaching Rocky at the time, however, was a just a bit off when he told the paper that Olson scored on his first play as a college football player.
Olson indeed scored on a 74-yard pass from Bryce Baker for Rocky’s first points in a 28-24 home loss to the Raiders on Aug. 31, 2013. Olson, though, had six carries and one reception the week before in the Bears’ 34-20 non-conference win over Jamestown (North Dakota).
Olson finished the season with 402 yards and two touchdowns on 87 carries. That comes after the Malta native suffered a torn ACL in the first game of last season. He received a medical redshirt that allowed him to play in 2017.
Eastern Oregon kicker Nathan Harden had perhaps the play of the day Saturday when he booted the Mountaineers to overtime.
Harden, who was named Frontier Conference Special Teams Player of the Week on Monday, drilled a 41-yard field goal as time expired to send the game to OT tied at 34.
The kick came shortly after Troy Arntson scored on a 20-yard pass from Reese Hiibel to put the Saints up 34-31.
Kai Quinn hit Brenden Kelly on a 24-yard TD pass in overtime to lift the Mountaineers to the season-ending win.
Only two of the eight Frontier Conference teams finished in the same spot of the standing in 2017 as they were in at the end of 2016.
Carroll College, which went 4-6 the last two seasons, finished in fifth place both years. Northern finished in the basement both years.
The biggest jump was Southern Oregon, which went from 5-5 to 10-0. The College of Idaho improved three games to 6-4, while Rocky jumped up two games to 6-4.
Eastern Oregon had the biggest fall, dropping from 8-2 to 4-6.
Tech fell three games to 6-4, Western dropped two to 4-6, and Northern went from 1-9 to 0-10 in league play. The Lights won a non-conference game over Mayville State (North Dakota).
Southern Oregon is the only time team from the Frontier Conference to qualify for the playoffs.
For the third time in four seasons, the Raiders will host a first-round playoff game when they take on Dickinson State, the North Star Athletic Association champions, Saturday at Raider Stadium.
History is not on the side of the Blue Hawks as they make the lone trip to Ashland, Oregon. Southern Oregon is 6-0 all time in the first round of the NAIA playoffs. In their last three playoff appearances, the Raiders have won their first-round game by at least 17 points.
Dickinson State fell in the first round of the playoffs in 2015 and 2016 at Montana Tech. The Blue Hawks have lost their last six playoff games.