By Bruce Sayler
A pair of Joey DeMarco interceptions and a handful of Braden Zuroff 20-yard bursts took Dickinson State to the next round in the NAIA national football playoffs.
The margin of team abilities was just that slim in a test of wills in talent that saw the Blue Hawks prevail 35-28 over Montana Tech in a first-round game played Saturday at Bob Green Field on the Montana Tech campus.
The rankings reflected as much. So did the contributions of DeMarco and Zuroff. Dickinson State held the No. 16 spot in the most recent NAIA poll and now has a 10-1 record. The Orediggers were 17th and finished the season with a 17-4 ledger.
DeMarco stopped Montana Tech drives twice with pass picks and was selected the defensive Most Valuable Player of the game. His last theft occurred in the end zone with 4 minutes, 38 seconds left and the Orediggers at the Blue Hawks’ 23-yard line. The turnover allowed Dickinson State to run out the clock, largely on four straight carries by Zuroff measuring 20, 6, 2 and 3 yards. Montana Tech was forced to exhaust its remaining timeouts during the stretch.
So, Zuroff earned Offensive MVP while finishing with 227 yards on 30 attempts, including three touchdowns.
“That was two really good teams battling it out,” Montana Tech head coach Kyle Samson said. “Our guys fought their butts off. It was not the result we wanted, but it won’t take anything away from our coaching staff and team and what they accomplished.”
The teams were tied 21-all at halftime in front of a stadium that was packed even though the much more hyped Bobcat-Grizzly game was being played at the same time 120 miles west in Missoula.
Neither team budged after intermission until the Blue Hawks took their first lead of the game on a 46-yard pass to Cameron Sheppard from quarterback Will Madler. Chase Miller kicked the extra point and Dickinson State owned a 28-21 margin with 3:05 left in the third quarter.
The score remained into the fourth quarter, but not too long. The Orediggers caught up with 12:40 left in the game when workhorse running back Landers Smith burrowed into the end zone from three yards out. It capped a march that began on the kickoff after Sheppard’s TD.
Dickinson State answered Smith’s score immediately with a drive of its own. It featured rips of 22 and 23 yards by Zuroff and finished on a 3-yard plunge by the star ballcarrier. Miller’s kick made the Blue Hawks’ edge 35-28 and it held to the end.
Quarterback Blake Thelen passed the Orediggers pack into contention to tie the score or take the lead with throws off 22 yards to Wyatt Alexander, and 3 and 6 yards both to Levi Torgerson. Smith rumbled off on a 10-yard carry.
An 11-yard pass to Torgerson on 4th-and-4 saved the drive at the Dickinson State 23 only for DeMarco to gather in Thelen’s pass into the end zone two snaps later.
Thelen passed for 359 yards with touchdown throws to Mark Estes and Alexander. He connected on 22 of 36 attempts.
“(Zuroff’s) a good player,” Samson praised. And, he made some nice runs. They’re a very good football team and our guys played their hearts out.”
It was Montana Tech’s first appearance in the postseason since 2016 and came on an at-large bid.
“It’s a big step for our program,” Samson said. “Now, we have to keep getting better.”
The coach emitted disappointment in his voice but showed pride on his face, affection in his eyes when he spoke of his first playoff team. The young mentor took the program reins in 2020.
Montana Tech got on the scoreboard first, helped by an Ethan Renner return of the opening kickoff to the Oredigger 45-yard line. Smith carried first for two yards and then Thelen linked with Estes, who made a lunging catch at the Dickinson State 7-yard line. Smith packed the ball across the goal line on second down. Ryan Lowry added the extra point kick and Montana Tech was ahead, 7-0.
The Orediggers looked to have the momentum after the touchdown and then forcing to Blue Hawks into a punt that ended a seven-play possession. However, a Thelen pass was batted into the air and snared by Dickinson State defender Brooks Talbot. It set the Blue Hawks up at the Montana Tech 29-yard line. Zuroff raced to the 1-yard line, then slashed in for his first touchdown of the game.
Montana Tech, though, led 14-7 after the first quarter with Thelen finding Estes on a 73-yard aerial.
The Blue Hawks tied the score 14-all on a 49-yard pass to Noah Sickler from Madler covering 49 yards. The Blue Hawks held Montana Tech to a punt and then got a 2-yard run from Zuroff to cap off a drive for a 21-14 lead. Madler’s 42-yard throw to Sickler set up the TD.
The Orediggers knotted the score with only 30 seconds remaining in the half as Alexander caught a 20-yarder from Thelen.
Sheppard was the Blue Hawks’ leading receiver with 116 yards on four catches. Jayden Heartwell led the team in tackles with 10, six of them solos. The Blue Hawks will advance to the quarterfinals next weekend against an opponent to be decided.
Smith finished with 71 yards on 22 carries for Montana Tech. The Orediggers again were without star running back Blake Counts, injured earlier this season. Estes racked up 133 yards on four receptions, Alexander had six grabs for 131 yards and Torgerson gained 57 yards on six catches. The receiving corps made several difficult snares against tight coverage.
Cole Wyant led the Montana Tech defense with 13 tackles, one a sack. The Orediggers were unable to cause any turnovers. Cole Stewart, J.R Seewald and Kade Wilcox each collected six tackles.
“I need to thank our seniors for all they’ve done for our program,” Samson said. “They mean so much to me and they have been the driving force in our program. I’m proud of them. They have nothing to hang their heads about.
“And, I’d like to thank the fans for their support all year. They’re proud to support Montana Tech and we’re proud to represent Montana Tech. We need to thank the families as well.”
Then, the coach immediately cast a glance to next year.
“It’ll be good,” he said.