By Bill Foley
A month ago, Saturday’s Montana Tech-Rocky Mountain College football game might have looked like just another game that the defending Frontier Conference champion Orediggers should walk away with.
When the No. 13 Orediggers meet the No. 25 Battlin’ Bears at 1 p.m. Saturday on the Bob Green Field, however, the eyes of the nation will be watching. (Radio KBOW 550 AM, 101.5 FM or online)
That’s because Rocky shook the Frontier — and perhaps the nation— by knocking off Carroll College 21-20 last week in Billings. That leaves the Battlin’ Bears tied for first place with Eastern Oregon at 2-0.
The Bears have a 2-1 overall record thanks to a non-conference loss at the University of Northern Colorado. Rocky knocked off MSU-Northern Aug. 27 in Havre, and the Bears debuted their new turf on the Herb Klindt Field with a monumental win last week.
“They look really good,” Tech coach Chuck Morrell said of the Bears. “They have a number of veterans back in their squad, and Coach (Jason) Petrino has done a great job since he’s taken over.”
The Orediggers, meanwhile, bounced back from a heartbreaking season-opening loss at Carroll College by beating Northern 35-10 in last week’s home opener. The victory righted the ship for the 2016 Oredigger season, but the team has a long way to go. Another loss — especially this early — would be devastating for the Orediggers.
Slowing down senior quarterback Chase White is the No. 1 thing the Orediggers will have to do to avoid falling into a two-loss hole.
Last week, the 6-foot-3 Shelby native passed for 232 yards and three touchdowns as the Bears took down Carroll. He completed 15 of 30 passes and was picked off twice. White has seven TDs to three picks on the season.
“He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league,” Morrell said. “He’s a long-time starter. He’s got a ton of snaps under his belt, and he makes a lot of plays for them.”
Last week, White used six different receivers. Jordan Van Zee, a 5-8 senior caught four passes for 81 yards and a touchdown.
Tyrell McGee (14 receptions for 214 yards) and Kalen Reed (13 for 229) are the leading receivers for the Bears. Ricky Carrigan caught two TD passes a week ago.
“They definitely have some fire power at the wide receiver position and some depth at running back,” Morrell said. “They certainly have the capability to strike really quickly offensively.”
The Oredigger defense enters the game feeling good about itself after a stellar second half in last week’s victory.
Despite being put in a few difficult situations, the Orediggers gave up just one field goal following Northern’s touchdown drive early in the first quarter.
“We got in some situations where our backs were against the wall,” Morrell said. “We talk to our guys all the time. Survive or thrive? What are you going to do when your back is against the wall? What are you going to do when things aren’t going right? It was good to see our guys keep them out of the end zone when things aren’t perfect.”
Morrell said tightening up near the end zone is a focus of his defense.
“Defensively you’ve got get stops in the red zone,” the coach said. “That’s the whole point. Every team in this league is going to be able to move the football.”
The Tech defense also put some points on the board. Defensive back Gunnar Kayser picked off a pass and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown. That was one of several big-time plays made by Kayser, the reigning Frontier Conference Defensive Player of the Week, as he stood out on a defense that is full of standouts.
Cornerback Anthony Nelson also blocked a punt that set up an Oredigger touchdown.
Offensively, Oredigger star running back Nolan Saraceni is coming off a very un-Saraceni-like performance. The senior ran for just 33 yards on just seven carries.
Morrell said there were a couple of factors in play in Saraceni’s lack of production against Northern.
“He’s a little banged up,” Morrell said. “But at the same time, we felt that he is going to have to carry the load a bunch for us throughout the course of the season. Once we felt like we were in control of the game on Saturday we gave him some rest because it’s a really long season, and we know that he’s going to have to have a huge impact for us to be successful.”
Regardless of Saraceni’s production, expect to see some more carries from redshirt freshman Braden Feisthamel. The former six-man football player from Savage opened some eyes last week with four carries for 27 yards.
“We ask our guys to make the most out of the limited plays we give you,” Morrell said. “If you excel, we’re going to give you some more.”
Junior quarterback Quinn McQueary had a hand in four touchdowns last week. He threw three and ran for one while racking up 263 yards on 19-for-30 passing.
Through two games, McQueary has showed willingness and ability to avoid the pass rush while remaining in the pocket. That has led to several big plays in the passing game.
“That’s been a big point of emphasis for us this year,” Morrell said. “He’s improved a tremendous amount from this point a year ago. A year ago he would probably just take off and run. This year he’s doing a great job of buying his receivers some extra time in scramble situations.
“Our receivers are really working hard, and we’ve had some explosive plays due to him keeping the play alive but still looking to get the ball down the field. That’s a big difference for us.”
Mitchell Keaton, a 6-3, 215-pound senior receiver, has emerged as McQueary’s favorite target. The two hooked up for a pair of scores last week, and the converted tight end has 13 receptions for 196 yards through two weeks.
“His level of play has certainly elevated, and now he’s become a go-to guy for us,” Morrell said of Keaton.
Zach Bunney and Dion Williams also have touchdown receptions on the season.
Morrell said the Oredigger offense will be challenged by the Bears.
“Defensively, they’re very tough up front, kind of similar to what we saw a week ago,” Morrell said. “They’ve got some skill guys in the back half who run around and have the ability to make some plays.”
The Orediggers are hosting the Bears during Hall of Fame week, and the 1996 Oredigger team that came within a controversial safety call of winning the national championship will be in town for the game.
Morrell said his team is eager to perform well in front of that group of former players.
“That ’96 team created a legacy that’s lasting to this day and will continue to go forward,” Morrell said.
The coach added that the ’96 team — and everyone else in attendance — should expect a heck of a football game at Alumni Coliseum. The Rocky-Tech game always seems to go that way.
Tech won 38-33 last year in Billings. Two years ago, the Bears overcame a 36-7 halftime deficit to beat Tech 45-39 in overtime in Butte.
“There’s certainly some rivalry games out there — Tech-Western, Tech-Carroll — but the Rocky-Tech game over the last couple of years has been some really exciting football games,” Morrell said. “Last year when we played them it was a crazy game. Two years ago we had an unbelievable game with them here. The Rocky-Tech games have been arguably the most entertaining games that we’ve played.”
This time around, eyes around the nation will also be looking on.