Orediggers, Bulldogs put it all on the line at Alumni

This game has been a long time coming for so many reasons.

When the No. 6 Montana Tech Orediggers meet the No. 10 Montana Western Bulldogs at noon Saturday at Alumni Coliseum, it will be about as big of a game as this longtime rivalry has ever seen. (Radio: KBOW, 550 AM, 101.5 FM or online)

The winner will secure the Frontier Conference’s automatic bid into the NAIA national playoffs.

“It doesn’t get any bigger than this,” Western coach B.J. Robertson said. “It’s exciting to have the ol’ Diggers and Dogs play.”

The last time these two teams met was Aug. 23, 2014. Western won that game 38-6 in Dillon. The Bulldogs, who punched the Orediggers in the mouth right from the opening kickoff, led 35-0 at halftime that night.

“It seems incredibly distant, but at the same time the guys remember it,” Tech coach Chuck Morrell said of that disheartening loss. “They kicked our tails. They jumped out on us and stuck it to us.”

That was 448 days before Saturday’s meeting, and a lot has changed. Both teams have played 18 Frontier Conference games since that night at Vigilante Field. The Orediggers have played Carroll College, MSU-Northern and Eastern Oregon each four times since they played the Bulldogs.

“These are two different football teams,” Morrell said. “We’re a much-improved team, and they are a much-improved team. Both programs are certainly peaking. There’s a lot at stake.”

At 8-1, the Orediggers have clinched at least a share of the Frontier Conference title. They have won six straight, including last week’s 21-17 win at then-No. 1, Southern Oregon.

Montana Western has won four straight, and the Bulldogs sit at 7-2 after last week’s thrashing of winless MSU-Northern in Dillon.

Southern Oregon is also 7-2, and the Frontier could end in a three-way tie if the Bulldogs win and Southern wins Saturday at Eastern Oregon.

If that is the case, Western would get the Frontier’s bid, and the Orediggers and Raiders would have to hope they get their name called when the playoff pairings are announced Sunday.

In the event of a three-way tie, the Frontier tiebreaker would be total points allowed in Frontier Conference games. Western leads that category with 153. Tech has surrendered 159 points, while SOU has giving up 206.

Of course, the Orediggers and Bulldogs aren’t worried at all about that. They both know that if they win, they are in. It’s that simple.

“It sure clears everything up, that’s for sure,” Robertson said of winning Saturday. “You put your fate in somebody else’s hands if you don’t win.”

Morrell echoed Robertson’s statements.

“We haven’t really talked about it,” the Tech coach said about tiebreaker scenarios. “We’re on an incredible focus level to just take care of the game.”

Basically, the Orediggers and Bulldogs have been playing playoff games for more than a month. Tech’s must-win mode began with a Sept. 19 loss at Eastern Oregon. Western’s began after suffering back-to-back home losses to Carroll College and Southern Oregon on Sept. 26 and Oct. 10.

“Since we had two losses a while back, we felt like every game was one we had to win,” Robertson said.

“Our guys have done a great job not looking back,” Morrell said. “We have had to stay laser-focused on the game in front of us.”

In Tech’s loss at Eastern Oregon — a loss the Orediggers atoned for two weeks ago — the team lost starting quarterback Quinn McQueary to a shoulder injury. A week later, backup Dawson Reardon left with a concussion and hasn’t played since.

Save for the home win over MSU-Northern on Oct. 17 and the first quarter of a win at Carroll the following week, the Orediggers have been playing basically without a quarterback.

Andrew Loudenback, a quarterback turned tight-end turned quarterback again, has taken snaps at quarterback. Receivers Clay Cavender and Zach Bunney and running back Nolan Saraceni have also taken a bunch of snaps as the Orediggers have kept opponents guessing with the ingenuity of offensive coordinator Pete Sterbick.

Morrell said that McQueary and Reardon could both possibly be back for the regular-season finale. The coach, though, comes from the Bill Belichick school of tipping his hand.

The Orediggers have been using 17 different personnel groups on offense.

Of course, that is led by Saraceni, who very well could be the best player in the NAIA.

The junior from Billings Senior is ranked No. 2 in the nation with 1,390 yards. He leads the nation with 173.8 yards per game.

How well the Bulldogs contain Saraceni will likely be the story of the game.

“You’ve got to eliminate the big plays and get guys to swarm to the ball,” Robertson said of the prospect of slowing down the great Oredigger back. “You’ve got to get gang tackles, and make sure he earns everything he gets. Easier said than done.”

The Bulldogs boast the league’s No. 1 rushing defense, surrendering 100.2 yards per game. The Orediggers average 298.9 yards per game rushing.

Western will be without senior safety Ben Sulser, who injured an ankle a couple of weeks ago. Skyler Roope, who won the Frontier Defensive Player of the Week award two weeks ago, will start in his place.

Morrell said the Bulldog defense — led by the likes of A.J. Wilson, Dakota Wainwright, Reno Ward, Taft Benson and Joe Coker — will be the stiffest test yet for Saraceni and the Oredigger ground attack.

“They’ve got a lot of veteran linebackers,” Morrell said. “They’ve got a lot of guys who don’t miss tackles.”

The Orediggers also have a bunch of guys who don’t miss tackles. Tech enters the game with the NAIA’s No. 13 total defense, surrendering 311.6 yards per game.

David Meis leads the team with 60 tackles. Tyler Gavlack is one behind Meis. Gavlack has six sacks to lead the team. Meis is one behind in that category.

Rial Gunlickson and Gunnar Kayser each have 41 tackles, while Drew Schleeman and Jacob Crawford follow at 34 and 33. Schleeman has been in on three and a half sacks, one more than Crawford.

Meis, Kayser, Schleeman, Crawford, Zavier Marsden, Tyler Sanders, Reid Siderius, DeAngelo Bell and Luke Benz each have an interception on the season. Will Davey has four. Kayser’s pick sealed Tech’s win at Southern Oregon.

That Oredigger defense will be facing a Bulldog offense that features a multi-headed rushing attack and a pair of true freshmen quarterbacks.

J.D. Ferris, who led the Dillon Beavers to the Class A state title a year ago on the Bob Green Field, and Bradley Smith will split time at quarterback, Robertson said.

Junior Sam Rutherford has rushed for 668 yards on the season. Dylan Kramer has 321, while Hunter Thomsen has 299. Thomsen averages 7.7 yards per carry. Kramer follows at 5.2, while Rutherford averages 4.6.

“Their offense starts with the running game,” Morrell said.

Matthew Fuhrman’s 35 receptions leads the Bulldog receiving corps. Tight end Matt Lickfold has 27 catches and five touchdowns. Eight different Bulldogs have hauled in TD passes.

Both teams have put in bids to host a playoff game in the event of a win. The playoffs start next week.

The Orediggers haven’t hosted a playoff game since 1997. Western hasn’t been in the playoffs in more than a decade.

“We’re excited to have the opportunity to control our own destiny,” Robertson said. “This type of game you have to be excited about.”

The Orediggers will celebrate Senior Day. Bell, Marsden, Cavender, Crawford, Meise, Gavlak, Matt Berg, Matt Meylan, Tyler Denny, Gage McCann, Alec Bray, Beau-Riley Pearson and Devon Jones will be recognized before the game. 1 comment

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1 Comment

  • Ted Richards
    November 13, 2015, 8:48 am

    I’m coming down hope there are tickets


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