By Bill Foley
Reality has set in for the Montana Tech football team.
With three losses in their last four games, the Orediggers are no longer a ranked team. Their chances of making the playoffs are also close to zero.
Still, the Orediggers see plenty of inspiration for their upcoming games, starting with Saturday’s contest against No. 19 Eastern Oregon in La Grande. Kick off is at 2 p.m. (Mountain Time.) (Radio: KBOW, 550 AM, 101.5 FM, online or on the KBOW app)
“What we’ve got coming down the pipe here,” Oredigger coach Chuck Morrell said. “Eastern Oregon is ranked. Southern Oregon is ranked. Rocky’s ranked. We have a home game against Carroll. We’re not looking past Eastern Oregon at all, but there’s a lot of things for us to play for right now.”
Morrell said the 3-3 Orediggers are going to lay it all on the line each of their final four weeks of the season.
“The games are going to be intense,” the coach said. “I’m just asking our guys one thing right now, ‘Just go out there and play as hard as you can play. If you do that, we’re going to be in position to have some opportunities.’”
The Orediggers know the challenge they face in the 4-2 Mountaineers, who went on the road to beat then-No. 7 Southern Oregon 27-17 last Saturday.
Eastern Oregon has won its last three straight, starting with its 54-51 triple-overtime home win over Montana Western on Sept. 22. That is the first-place Bulldogs only loss. EOU went to Havre for a 58-24 win the following week.
“They’ve been playing exceptionally well,” Morrell said. “Eastern had a very big win at Southern Oregon last weekend. That definitely proves their mettle and their caliber of play and how well they’re playing right now.”
The Orediggers used an inspired defensive performance and three third-quarter touchdown passes by Tanner Kump for a 24-17 come-from-behind win over Eastern Oregon Sept. 8 in Butte.
Eastern Oregon possess as dangers combination in sophomore quarterback and senior receiver Brenden Kelly.
Quinn has thrown for nine touchdowns and ran for five more to lead the Mountaineer offense. Kelly has hauled in 37 passes for 832 yards. He is No. 2 behind Tech senior Dion Williams’s 39 for the league lead. Kelly is blowing away the field in receiving yards.
“They have arguably the best receiver in the league,” Morrell said. “The catches that he makes are incredible. It’s a lot of stuff where he goes up and takes the ball away. He’s certainly a handful.
“Their quarterback is playing very, very well right now,” Morrell said. “They’re up-tempo and spread out. They try to move the ball up and down the field and get points on the board.”
Victor Dias, a 5-foot-8, 210-pound running back, averages 4.8 yards per carry. He’s scored seven touchdowns.
Led by a handful of All-Conference contenders, the Oredigger defense has been a formidable, sometimes spectacular unit.
Junior linebacker Jacob Clarke has had a breakout season, and he leads the team with 45 tackles.
Carter Myers, Tucker Rauthe, Connor Wines, Justin May, Nic Amestoy, Chance Hansen, Cam Nissen and Damaree Morris also have at least 20 take downs. May has three picks, while Wines and Brock Beede share the lead with three sacks.
Last week, Beede a senior lineman, returned to action after missing two games.
Defensively, the Mountaineers pose lots of problems. There schemes are as unorthodox as they are aggressive.
“They bring a lot of pressure and a lot of different looks,” Morrell said. “They’ve got one of the best defensive linemen in the league in Sage Delong. He’s an incredible physical player.”
Delong, a 6-5, 255-pound sophomore, is tied for the team lead with four and a half sacks with junior linebacker Isaiah Cranford. As a team, the Mountaineers have taken the ball away 15 times in six games.
Eastern Oregon puts pressure on the opposing offensive line with its mixed up looks. Tech’s starting linemen — Trevor Hopf, Hunter Spartz, Hayden Smith, Grant Benz and Kellen Davis — have been working hard to counter that, Morrell said.
In the first meeting, that unit struggled early. Then, the Oredigger big men adjusted and eventually took over the game.
“They challenge you from an eye discipline standpoint up front,” Morrell said. “Sometimes early in the game it takes you a second to get wired into the speed and tempo of the game and the different looks they’re bring at you.
“Our offensive line has spent a lot of time of all the different looks this week. We’ve just got to challenge them to step up and be physical.”
The linemen will be paving the way for junior Jed Fike, who leads the Frontier Conference with 775 yards through six weeks. He’s scored five touchdowns, including a 20-yard scamper to send last week’s game with the College of Idaho to Overtime.
Fans, media and the Oredigger Mountaineers will find out which quarterback will start Saturday when the Oredigger offense takes the field for the first time.
Kump missed last week’s game with an injury.
Redshirt freshmen Jet Campbell and Cole Hauptman and junior Danny Peoples have taken snaps in his place.
Peoples directed the Oredigger’s game-tying drive last week. He also took the reigns in overtime of the 23-20 loss.
After Williams, a senior who etched is name in Tech’s record book two more times last week, Trevor Hoffman has been a favorite target of Tech’s QB’s. He’s caught 25 passes and scored four touchdowns.
The Orediggers will by home next weekend to take on No. 14 Southern Oregon. After their Nov. 3 home game against Carroll College, Tech closes the season Nov. 10 at No. 15 Rocky Mountain College.