BILLINGS — The offense controlled the ball, the defense made the stops it needed when it most needed to, and the special teams were superb for Montana Tech. As a result, the Orediggers nicked Rocky Mountain 20-17 Saturday in a Frontier Conference college football battle of nationally ranked contenders.
Ryan Lowry kicked two field goals, the last one a 32-yarder with 4 minutes, 7 seconds left in the game that scored the winning points for Montana Tech, which had found itself down 14-0 in the first half.
The Orediggers, ranked 23rd in NAIA, trailed the 24th-ranked Bears 14-7 at halftime in a rugged defensive tussle playing out on Herb Klindt Field. The Orediggers scored on a 1-yard burrow by Blake Counts to tie the score in the third quarter before Rocky Mountain went back ahead, 17-14, on a 28-yard field goal by Austin Drake that ended the quarter.
Lowry retied the score with a 30-yard field goal at 7:02 of the fourth period before booting the game-winner.
“I’m doing great,” a happy Kyle Samson, Montana Tech head coach, told buttesports.com in a phone call after the game. “I’m on the bus, heading back to Butte and feeling really good. That’s (Rocky Mountain) a really good football team, as we all know. To overcome the adversity and beat them on the road is the biggest win we’ve had.”
It also kept the Orediggers in the hunt for the Frontier Conference title as well as a spot in the nearing NAIA playoffs. Montana Tech is home against Montana Western next weekend and then at Montana State-Northern the following Saturday. The Orediggers have a 6-2 record after the win over the Bears. Rocky Mountain fell to 5-3 and is thought unlikely a three-loss team from the Frontier Conference would be given playoffs consideration. College of Idaho leads the league with a 6-1 mark prior to kicking off against Southern Oregon Saturday evening.
Blake Thelen quarterbacked the entire second half for Montana Tech after sharing the duties with Jet Campbell in the first half. Samson said the decision was to stay with the hot hand and Thelen seemed to have the feel of the game. The coach said he plans to use both the rest of the schedule.
“We knew we had to play both today, and then Blake had the hot hand in the second half,” Samson said. “We’re really fortunate to have two good quarterbacks. I’m super proud of them. Blake, in the second half, was playing well.”
Rocky Mountain quarterback George Tribble threw two touchdown passes to Trae Henry to stake the Bears to their 14-0 lead. The connection measured 60 yards and came with 50 seconds left in the first quarter. It followed an interception by Isaiah Schlegel near the goal line that denied Montana Tech the first touchdown.
The defenses were stout from the start and it was until only 4:03 remained the half that anyone scored again, and it was Henry, again, on a pass from Tribble. This one was a 32-yard play.
The Bears threated to score again later and Tribble kept for a 53-yard dash up the middle. However, Oredigger Naoki Harmer stripped him of the ball at the end of the run, and Brandon Morley recovered the fumble for Montana Tech. It launched the Orediggers’ first scoring drive.
Thelen finished the six-play march by linking with tight end Logan Kennedy on a 21-yard pass play with 2:34 left in the first half. The TD cut Montana Tech’s deficit in half to 14-7 at halftime.
The two scoring passes from Tribble were to be the only touchdowns Rocky Mountain would register. Montana Tech came out of the locker room at halftime and took over control of the game, though it was a lengthy time before it gained the lead.
“I was really proud of the second-half adjustments by our staff,” Samson said. “We had made some uncharacteristic mistakes in the first half. Then, we did a good job of controlling the clock. Our defense made some big plays, particularly at the end of the game, Andew Almos had a great punt, about 65 yards, and Ryan Lowry kicked clutch field goals.
“I’m really proud of them. Blake (Counts) had more than 150 yards rushing and Kaleb (Winterburn) ran really well. Of course, it all starts up front with the O-Line. And, we had some big-time receivers who blocked well today. Angel (Sanchez) came to play today (two interceptions) and our defense got really good pressure on their quarterback. The defense held them to three points in the second half. It did a good job of clamping down, a tribute to the leadership of the guys.”
Counts TD dive came on the Orediggers’ next possession after they had reached the Bears’ 10-yard line early in the second half and were unable to capitalize, missing on a field goal try.
Drake and Lowry then traded field goals before the last one by Lowry that determined the final margin.
The Montana Tech win avenged a 28-20 loss to the Bears on September 17 in Butte.
Thelen completed half of his 24 passes Saturday for 164 yards. He threw for one touchdown and one suffered one interception. Campbell, recently recovered from injury, was 5-for-7 on passes for 32 yards with one pick. Tribble passed for 206 yards and two touchdowns on 15-of-32 passing. He was intercepted twice.
Counts carried 22 times for 153 yards, and Winterburn had 12 lugs for 24 yards. Tribble was Rocky Mountain’s leading rusher with 117 yards on 19 carries. Zaire Wilcox had 41 on 18.
Kennedy finished as the top Oredigger receiver for the day with four catches for 71 yards. Kyle Torgerson had five catches for 50 yards, and Trevor Hoffman four receptions for 42 yards. RMC’s Henry led everybody with seven snares for 139 yards. DeNiro Killian Jr. caught three Tribble passes for 24 yards.
Linebacker Cole Wyant led the Orediggers in tackles with 12, half of them solo. Keyshawn James-Newby added two more sacks to his conference-leading total while posting eight tackles. Matt Whitcomb, Zach Trumble and Ben Windauer each collected seven tackles. Almos averaged 54.7 yards per punt while booming the 64-yarder.
Jack Cline led Rocky Mountain in tackles with 10. Nolan McCafferty had nine and John Waddell had seven.
Counts suffered an injury in the fourth quarter on his final carry. Samson said he did not know yet the extent of it.
A large cheering section exhorted the Orediggers on the Bears’ home field.
“I have to give a shoutout to our fans,” Samson said. “It was almost like a home game for us. On the road, we probably had more fans than the home team. A lot of Tech alumni living in the (Billings) area came out for us. It says a lot for Digger Nation. Our parents and fans were amazing today.”
Montana Tech has its last scheduled home game of the season looming next Saturday with the 1 p.m. contest against rival Montana Western.
“We have Senior Day next Saturday against Western, which will be a battle in Butte,” Samson said.
Rocky Mountain will travel to Havre next weekend to play Montana State-Northern on Saturday.
— compiled by Bruce Sayler for buttesports.com