Since winning the Frontier Conference title in 2012, the Montana Tech football team has won just four times in its next 20 games.
The Orediggers, who went 1-9 a year ago, haven’t won a game since beating MSU-Northern at home on Aug. 30 of last season.
Still, the Orediggers head into the 2015 season with expectations riding high as the team heads to Havre for Saturday’s 1 p.m. Frontier Conference game against MSU-Northern. (Radio: KBOW, 550 AM, 101.5 FM or online)
“We’re going to play some better team football,” Montana Tech fifth-year head coach Chuck Morrell said. “My gut tells me our offense is going to be able to control the ball and score points, and that’s only going to make our defense better.”
The Orediggers are banking on more consistent play from their offense, and, in particular, their quarterback.
Sophomore Quinn McQueary will get the start after transferring from Montana State after last season.
The Manhattan native, though, wasn’t named the starter until Tuesday. He narrowly got the edge over fellow sophomore Dawson Reardon, a Helena High product who has starting experience.
Morrell said the decision was a tough one because Reardon had such a strong preseason camp.
“It was really difficult,” the coach said. “Both guys played really well during camp. Coach (Pete) Sterbick watched every snap during fall camp and made the decision.”
Morrell noted the likelihood that Reardon will be needed sometime during the season.
“I’m really confident in both guys,” Morrell said. “That’s certainly a good situation for us to be in.”
Sterbick put an end to Tech’s revolving door at offensive coordinator position. He enters his second season on the Hill. The last time the Orediggers had a second-year OC and consistent quarterback play was when they won the Frontier in ’12.
Morrell figures his new quarterback will have plenty of weapons to work with. The Orediggers are very deep at the receiver position.
Alec Bray and Carlos Martinez are listed as starters for the Orediggers at receiver on the team’s two-deep list, which is suspect given the secret nature of the Tech coaching staff.
Chris LaChance, a 6-foot-4 sophomore junior college transfer, figures to be in the mix as well as Clay Cavender, Sean Sullivan, Dion Williams, Jimmy Weigel and Zach Bunney.
The Orediggers, Morrell said, will use the tight end more this season. They are expecting production from Beau-Riley Pearson, converted defensive lineman Andy Butcher and converted quarterback Andrew Loudenback.
As far as the running game goes, the Orediggers will turn the show over to Nolan Saraceni, a junior from Billings Senior. Saraceni, the last man to win a Class AA State title in the 100- and 200-meter races before Butte’s Dalton Daum, served as an apprentice under Pat Hansen the last two season.
Zach Winfield will also expect a lot of carries, and Morrell said redshirt freshman Hunter Gappmayer of Bozeman is also ready to go.
The backs will be running behind an offensive lineman that has grown into its own. The listed starters up front are Travis Oakason, Tyler Denny, Ryan Stemple and Jalen Whitley.
“We’ve got a combination of everything in our offense right now,” Morrell said. “We can run the ball. We’ve got the short passing game. We’ve got some screen play that’s going to be solid for us. I’m excited to see if we can throw the ball down field as well.”
The offense will be tested Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium.
The Lights are led by a solid defensive front. Northern fell 17-7 at Dickinson State, the former Frontier Conference doormat, Aug. 22.
Morrell said he saw good things from the Lights, particularly from the defensive front.
“Tyler Craig had three sacks in their first game,” Morrell said. “We’re certainly aware of him.”
On the other side of the ball, the Orediggers are well aware of Zach McKinley.
The junior running back ran for 96 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries for first-year head coach Aaron Christensen’s Lights.
“I think the world of Zach McKinley,” Morrell said. “He is a tough customer.”
Morrell doesn’t know what to think of the Lights passing game. The team’s stats were abysmal against the Blue Hawks. Morrell, though, pointed out the game was played in horrible weather conditions that included gusty winds.
Tech’s defense is ready to go, Morrell said.
The unquestioned leader of the team is senior All-American linebacker David Meis.
Tech’s coach said he marvels at the play of the Helena native.
“To watch him do the same things over and over again is just a joy,” Morrell said. “The guy has had a million reps, and he is just so consistent.”
Drew Schleeman steps in to replace Mike Touzinsky at the other outside backer position. Tyler Gavlak and Matt Neylan will start on the inside.
Tech’s defensive line is a year older and deep Morrell said. Jake Crawford, Tyler Sanders and Luke Benz are listed as the starters up front.
The same description fits the Oredigger secondary, where DeAngelo Bell, Rian Gunlikson, Gunnar Kayser and Xavier Marsden are listed as starters.
The Oredigger schedule gets substantially tougher after the opener.
Next week Tech plays host to defending Frontier Conference champion Carroll College, the No. 4 team in the nation, in the Orediggers’ home opener. Following a trip to No. 13 Eastern Oregon, the Orediggers will welcome the College of Idaho to Alumni Coliseum for the first time.
The Orediggers will play Northern, Carroll and Eastern Oregon twice. They play the College of Idaho, Rocky Mountain College, Montana Western and No. 1 Southern Oregon once.
The game against the defending national champion Raiders will be in Southern Oregon.
Morrell said his team can’t look past the Lights, who beat Tech in Havre last season.
“The Frontier is a knock-down drag-out fight,” Morrell said, pointing to the College of Idaho’s 40-28 home win over Eastern Oregon last week. “For me, that set the tone of what the league is going to be like this year.”