By Bill Foley
BILLINGS — Last week was the low point for the Montana Tech football team.
The Orediggers were caught off guard and fell 35-14 to arch-rival Carroll College, spoiling Senior Day and threatening to send the team’s fanbase into a winter of discontent. (Stats)
This Saturday, it was the Orediggers turn to play spoiler.
Montana Tech bounced back in a big, big way, knocking off No. 11 Rocky Mountain College 31-27 at a windy, cold Herb Klindt Field.
“We knew we wanted to do something big as we go into the offseason,” said Tech redshirt freshman quarterback Jet Campbell. “We showed the Frontier (Conference) what we’re all about.”
The win put a damper on Rocky’s Senior Day Celebration. With Montana Western losing 37-10 at Southern Oregon, the Battlin’ Bears still won the Frontier Conference title outright for the first time in two decades.
Tech killed Rocky’s plans for a victory lap around Herb Klindt Field, and the Bears will now find themselves at the bottom end of the field of 16 when they likely learn their playoff opponent on Sunday.
Tech, however, could not care less about that. The Orediggers salvaged some good news heading into the offseason, finishing a rocky campaign at 5-5.
“We talked about it this week,” Tech coach Chuck Morrell said. “Our season has been up and down, and you’ve got two choices. You can run and hide, or you can prove what your character is all about. That’s what our guys did today.”
Junior running back Jed Fike had a monster game, rushing for 223 yards and three touchdowns to lead the way.
“He was pretty much the backbone of the team today,” Campbell said of Fike, the Frontier Conference rushing champion for the second straight year. “He opened up all the play action and obviously did a number on their defense.”
Campbell also did a number on the Bears.
He passed for 204 yards and made a handful of clutch passes, including a 12-yard to Will Hunthausen to put the Orediggers on top for good with 9 minutes, 52 seconds left.
“Jet Campbell came through with some monster timely throws,” Morrell said. “And some guys went up and made some plays for him.”
Sophomore tight end Tanner Osborne made the catch of the day, going up high for a 27-yard gain on third and 10. Osborne went up high for the grab that helped kill most of the clock.
“It looked like he had a 40-inch vertical on that play,” Morrell said.
“We’ve known he could do that,” Campbell said of the play in which the quarterback put the ball where only his receiver could get it. “We saw he had a mismatch on one of their defenders on that play. He’s really good at going up and getting the ball. We know we can trust them.”
Jacob Bakken passed for three touchdowns and ran for more to lead the Battlin’ Bears, who saw their six-game winning streak come to an end.
Fike, whose day included a 66-yard run, did his damage on 40 carries behind an offensive line missing injured senior Trevor Hopf.
“I’m really proud of our offensive line for stepping up to the plate and being physical all day,” Morrell said of his linemen Hunter Berg, Grant Benz, Kellen Davis, Hunter Spartz and Hayden Smith. “It was an absolutely unbelievably physical game.”
As much as the day was one to spur excitement about the future, it was also a day to say goodbye the Oredigger seniors, whose big day was spoiled a week ago.
“Every person who has ever played the game of football remembers their last game,” Morrell said. “For our seniors, it’s a day they’ll never forget. I’m just glad it will be a positive memory.”
The Bears jumped out to a 14-3 lead. Bakken scrambled for a touchdown before hitting Darneil Jenkins for a score around a 34-yard field goal by Cody Gagnon.
Tech cut the lead to 14-10 when Fike burned a drawn-up Rocky defense on third and 1. He quickly busted through the line and easily outraced the Bear defense to the north end zone with 9:10 left in the second quarter.
An 11-yard scamper by Fike early in the third quarter put the Orediggers on top 17-14, but the Bears answered. The Bears jumped back up when Bakken found Max Gray for a score for a 21-17 advantage.
Fike’s third touchdown, this time from 3 yards out, gave Tech the 24-21 lead late in the third. The score was set up by an acrobatic catch by senior receiver Dion Williams.
Again, the lead did not last.
Exactly 1 minute later, Bakken hit May for a 21-yard pass for a 27-24 lead with 1:14 left in the third quarter.
Campbell’s game-winner to Hunthausen, came on third and 8.
“They straight up moved it all game,” senior linebacker Connor Wines said of the Oredigger offense. “They went up and down the field. Rocky couldn’t stop Jed.”
Tech was able to hold on thanks to some big plays by the defensive backs, including Matthew Drake, Justin May, Demaree Morris, Naoki Harmer and true freshman Teddy Croft, aka the “Alaskan Assassin.”
“They won us the game there at the end,” Wines said.
Morrell praised his team for finishing the season on such a high note.
“It’s a testament to our character, our culture and our family,” the coach said as his eighth year came to an end. “We’re never going to quit. We’re never going to back down from any competitor.”
“It’s our responsibility to make our families proud, the brotherhood proud, Tech and Butte proud, so I knew our guys were going to come out and throw down today.”
While his career came to an end, Wines looked forward for the Orediggers, who played 30 players sophomore or younger this season.
“Those young guys coming up, you saw all they plays they made,” Wines said. “They’re going to be great.”
Wines also made sure to take some time to appreciate the win that followed such a horrible loss.
“It’s awesome. It’s big time,” he said. “Starting Monday, we knew we could do this. To take one of the top teams in the country off is awesome.”