Montana Tech and Eastern Oregon have basically traded places.
The No. 15 Orediggers hit the road Saturday to take on the unranked and winless Mountaineers Saturday. Kickoff is at 2 p.m. Mountain Time in La Grande, Oregon. (Radio: KBOW, 550 AM, 101.5 FM or online)
The Orediggers debuted in the national poll this week after beating then-No. 4 Carroll College 19-10 in Butte last week.
Tech coach Chuck Morrell said his players haven’t been celebrating the ranking because they know how quickly fortunes can change in the NAIA. They have to look no further than Saturday’s opponent for an example of that.
When the preseason Top 25 poll came out, Eastern Oregon sat in the No. 13 spot and was considered a favorite to contend for the conference title. Montana Tech didn’t receive a vote.
Now, the Mountaineers are 0-3 and playing for their slim postseason lives, and the Orediggers are off to the best start imaginable
“It can change in a heartbeat,” Morrell said. “As fast as it comes it can leave in a hurry, too.”
All three of Eastern Oregon’s losses have come on the road. The Mountaineers fell 40-28 at the College of Idaho, 41-20 at Sacramento State and 38-35 at Southern Oregon.
The loss at Southern Oregon has to be stinging the Mountaineers, who surrendered 24 unanswered points to lose the game in the last seconds.
“They were up on Southern Oregon 35-14 at the start of the fourth quarter,” Morrell said. “That shows that they are absolutely one of the most explosive offenses in the Frontier. It is big time deceiving that they’re 0-3 right now. I still think they’re one of the most dangerous teams in the conference.”
The most dangerous Mountaineer is Jace Billingsley, a senior running back/slot receiver who has started since his freshman season.
The 5-foot-9, 190-pound Billingsley leads the team in rushing and receiving. He is averaging 5.5 yards per carry and has 205 yards on the ground. He has also caught 19 passes for 174 yards and two scores. That includes a 72-yard reception.
“He’s the real deal,” Morrell said.
Junior quarterback Zach Bartlow is a double threat for the Mountaineers. He has completed 62 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and one interception. He also has ran for 204 yards on the season. That includes a 97-yard touchdown run on third and 27 against the College of Idaho.
“Those guys paired up in the backfield is a one-two punch,” Morrell said. “Their quarterback converts third downs like crazy with his feet. If it’s third and seven, third and eight, third and nine he’s scrambling for first downs. That’s a big asset to Eastern’s offense.”
The Orediggers also have a big asset in sophomore quarterback Quinn McQueary. The Montana State transfer has directed a Tech offense to more than 1,000 yards in two games.
McQueary, who has run for 100 yards, has completed 81 percent of his passes for 436 yards and two touchdowns.
Junior running back Nolan Saraceni has racked up 205 yards and five touchdowns. He is averaging 8.8 yards per carry. Zach Winfield averages 5.3 yards per carry, and senior Alec Bray already has 14 catches for 172 yards.
The Orediggers, though, had to settle for four Matt Berg field goals against Carroll. That, Morrell said, is a concern hitting the road this week.
“It’s a long trip for us, and it’s a tough place to play,” Morrell said of heading to La Grande. “I’ve been talking to our guys all week, and I really feel strongly that we’re going to have to play better than we did a week ago to be successful out there.
“Offensively, we’ve got to have touchdowns,” Morrell said, “especially with how explosive Eastern has been on offense. We’re going to have to score some points in this game.”
Defensively, the Orediggers have been solid to say least. They give up a league-best 12 points per game.
Tyler Gavlak, Tech’s nominee for Frontier Conference Defensive Player of the Week last week, has a team-leading 17 tackles. Fellow senior linebacker David Meis is next with 14 tackles, while junior defensive back Gunnar Kayser has 11.
DeAngelo Bell, Luke Benz and Zavier Marsden all have interceptions for the Orediggers.
Morrell also pointed to the special teams play in the win over Carroll. Of course, he was pleased with the place kicking of Berg, who booted a 46-yard field goal. He also praised Berg for kicking off into the end zone.
“I can’t emphasize how important that was,” Morrell said. “Every time a kickoff goes back for a touch back, that’s one less defensive play for us. Our field position was excellent, and that was a big part of that.”
The Orediggers will return home next week to take on the College of Idaho. If all goes well, they won’t have to worry about trading back with the Mountaineers any time soon.