By Bill Foley
Don’t let the records fool you.
The No. 8 Montana Tech Orediggers are taking nothing for granted Saturday when they head to Havre to battle 1-5 MSU-Northern in a Frontier Conference football game at Blue Pony Stadium.
Kickoff is at 1 p.m. (Radio: KBOW 550 AM, 101.5 FM or online)
Following their season-opening loss at Carroll College, the 5-1 Orediggers have won five straight games to take over sole possession of first place in the Frontier Conference. That streak includes last week’s 34-15 victory over the Saints last week in Butte.
Northern, which Tech beat 35-10 in Butte on Sept. 3, has won only one game over the past two seasons. Tech coach Chuck Morrell, though, knows better than to put too much weight in any of that.
Just ask the Saints, who fell 28-14 to the Lights Sept. 17 in Havre.
“They’re playing very well right now,” Morrell said of the Lights. “There’s such a change in them from a year ago.”
Last year, the Orediggers outscored the Lights 98-14 in two games. That includes a 58-14 season-opening win in Havre.
This year, Morrell says the Lights are much like the Orediggers of a couple of years ago. By that, the coach means the team has been in a several games but fell short in the end.
“You can be a good football team in this league, and maybe your won or loss record might not show it,” Morrell said.
Last week, the Lights took a 10-7 lead into the fourth quarter only to fall 21-13 at Rocky Mountain College.
“They were in control most of that game,” Morrell said.
In their loss to the Orediggers, the Lights trailed just 14-7 at halftime on the Bob Green Field. Tech broke the game open in the second half when Zach Bunney turned a short pass from Quinn McQueary into a 16-yard touchdown, and Gunnar Kayser returned a pick 35 yards for a score to break the game open in the third quarter.
A stout defensive front and running back Zach McKinley lead the Lights into Saturday’s game. McKinley is averaging 4.2 yards per carry and has racked up 593 yards through six games.
McKinley, a 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior from Great Falls, went for 107 yards on 22 carries against the Orediggers. He’s the only back to break the century mark rushing against Tech this season.
Of those yards, though, only five came in the second half.
Last week, McKinley ran for 132 yards last week in Billings.
“I enjoy watching him play so much,” Morrell said. “I’m just glad this is the last time I have to go against him, to be honest with you. He’ll go down in history as one of the better running backs in this league. He’s always a handful.”
Caleb McLaren, a 6-foot junior from Alaska, has taken over at quarterback for the Lights. Morrell said he is more run-oriented than Jesse Krahn, who faced the Orediggers the first time around.
Last Week, McLaren, who started the last two games, passed for 260 yards and a touchdown — a 63-yard strike to Dylan Rychtarik. He completed 22 of 37 passes for 260 yards. He was picked off twice and sacked seven times.
McLaren will be facing an Oredigger defense that includes the Frontier Conference sack leader in linebacker Luke Benz (six sacks) and the league’s interception leader in Gunnar Kayser (four picks).
Sophomore linebacker Nic Amestoy leads the balanced and deep Oredigger defense with 46 tackles.
“Luke has been dynamic for a while,” Morrell said. “He’s winning a lot of one-on-one matchups, and he’s explosive. He’s having an outstanding senior campaign.”
Last week Benz, a senior, put a vicious hit on Carroll College quarterback J.T. Linder to end the Saints’ first drive.
Amestoy is having a breakout season after seeing time as a backup a year ago.
“You see him flourish now in a starting role, and that’s not by accident,” Morrell said. “It’s because he’s had some game experience, and now he’s now he’s translating well to being out there all the time.”
Morrell said Kayser, a senior safety, is quarterback of the defense.
“GK is having a phenomenal year for us,” Morrell said. “He makes all the calls on the field. His IQ is incredible. We’re doing a lot of different things with him.
“Our defensive IQ is really high right now. When you’ve got guys who understand scheme on the back half, it allows you to be very creative.”
Of course, junior Quinn McQueary is the Orediggers’ actual quarterback, and he’s having a big year. He passed for 263 yards and a touchdown against the Lights the first time around. He also ran for a score.
On the season, McQueary has completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,453 yards. He has thrown 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. The quarterback is also a threat to run, racking up 168 yards.
Nolan Saraceni, who was limited to just seven carries because he was “banged up” against the Lights last month, is averaging 5.9 yards per carry. He has 670 yards through six games. That includes last week’s 85-yard touchdown run.
Senior Mitchell Keeton leads the team with 25 receptions. He has 345 yards and three touchdowns.
Sophomore Dion Williams leads the league in circus catches. He’s racked up 391 yards and four touchdowns on 19 catches. Over the past two games, Williams has 12 receptions for 240 yards.
Sean Sullivan (18 receptions) Carlos Martinez (16) and Zach Bunney (16) have also been big-time targets for McQueary.
The combination of the Oredigger running and passing games makes life very difficult for opposing defenses.
“If you’re going to try to just get focused on Nolan, then some of our explosive playmaking in our wide receiver play or quarterback play comes into play,” Morrell said. “We can get the ball down field now and really make people pay for loading up the box.
“If they’re going to back off and play some coverage, then you see Nolan Saraceni score from 85 yards out, too,” Morrell said. “When Nolan gets some space at any time he can go the distance.”
Despite the 1-5 record, the Lights boast one of the top defensive fronts in the league.
Freshman N’Drain N’Guessa and senior Jordan Brusio rank among the league leaders in sacks, while junior Garet Fowler ranks sixth in tackles with 48. Senior Tyler Craig is sixth with seven and a half tackles for a loss.
“They’re a very physical defensive front,” Morrell said. “They’re doing a great job with the run. They’ve certainly amped up the amount of pressure that they’re running right now and getting after the quarterback.”
The Orediggers have four games remaining, and three of them are on the road. After a trip to Billings to take on Rocky next week, the Orediggers return hoe Nov. 5 to take on the College of Idaho and celebrate Senior Day.
Tech then closes the regular season Nov. 12 at Southern Oregon.