Improved offensive line key in Oredigger run

Montana Tech has some serious skill players, an efficient quarterback, a game-breaking running back and a defense that has been playing lights out.

One major key in Montana Tech’s playoff run, though, often goes unmentioned: the play of the offensive line.

Montana Tech entered the season with a young group of lineman, and that position was a big question mark. Under the direction of 14-year offensive line coach Scott Sampson, that position has improved to the point where it is a team strength heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale at Southern Oregon.

“If I had to point to one unit on the entire team that has consistently gotten better from where they started at the beginning of the season to where they are now, it’s the offensive line,” Oredigger coach Chuck Morrell said Wednesday.

The offensive line is a factor in a passing game that has seen quarterback Nick Baker complete 69 percent of his passes and Pat Hansen run in the hunt for the Frontier Conference rushing title.

“That is a very young crew for us. You can see they have just exponentially gotten better,” Morrell said. “They’re consistent; we can count on them.”

Last week, the Orediggers saw 10 offensive linemen play in Tech’s 43-7 win over Montana Western. Seniors Keith Mullan and David Tapia-Padron started along with freshmen Brandon Allen, Ben Cook and Gage McCann.

Junior Daniel Valenzuela also played on the offensive front. So did sophomore Mack Ferko and freshmen Nicholas Riley, Alex Havlovick and Blake Ereaux.

“We’ve got a lot of different guys who have been competing and playing well,” Morrell said.

Morrell added that the growing pains that come along with six linemen who are freshmen or redshirt freshmen are basically in the past.

“The last few weeks our sack numbers have come down,” Morrell said. “We didn’t give up any sacks on Saturday, which was a first for us during the season. I think those guys are taking a lot of pride in that position. When that position is doing well, it certainly gives our skill guys a lot of confidence that we’re going get some time to get the ball to our playmakers, and we’re going to open some holes for Pat in the running game.”

Morrell said wins are hard to come by without a solid offensive line.

“It is absolutely critical,” Morrell said. “To be successful in this league you’ve got to have a strong offensive line.”